The New England Patriots have been busy working on their safety position over the last few days. Not only did the team re-sign impending unrestricted free agent Devin McCourty via a two-year, $23 million contract, it also decided to move on from its number three option at the position for the last six years: according to a series of reports, New England will trade Duron Harmon to the Detroit Lions in return for yet to be disclosed compensation.
While the move does free up $3.89 million on the Patriots’ salary cap, it also weakens the overall depth of a secondary that was the best in all of football in 2019. After all, Harmon was a reliable and experienced presence in the defensive backfield and saw considerable playing time within the unit in his usual role as a free safety: appearing in all 17 of New England’s games, he finished the year with the seventh-highest snap count on the team.
Needless to say that the trade transforms New England’s safety position quite a bit. Let’s therefore take a closer look at it.
The free safety role carries plenty of deep-field responsibilities, but in New England is also frequently used to create scheme-dependent coverage mismatches: the Patriots like to move their free safeties all over the formation.
With Harmon on his way to Detroit, the Patriots have only one pure free safety remaining on their roster: Devin McCourty. The veteran is of course one of the best players his position has to offer, and an elite defensive back due to his blend of versatility and range in combination with an outstanding football IQ. That being said, the depth behind the 32-year-old is literally non-existent at the moment which means that New England needs to address it during the offseason.
The draft is one option to fill the void behind McCourty, with talented and versatile players such as Alabama’s Xavier McKinney or LSU’s Grant Delpit possible first-round targets to groom alongside McCourty. That being said, New England could also look to the free agency market — the Chicago Bears’ Ha Ha Clinton-Dix might be an option — or look in-house to fill Harmon’s old spot as the number two free safety behind McCourty.
Despite turning 33 in August and having dealt with an array of injuries during the 2019 season, Patrick Chung is currently locked in as New England’s top strong safety option — a position he held ever since returning to the Patriots in 2014 from his one-year stint with the Philadelphia Eagles. In this role, the veteran will continue to see considerable action this season against opposing tight ends and as an additional body in the box against the run.
Like McCourty, Chung has considerable experience and the communication skills to work as a leader within the secondary. That being said, the depth behind him is also a big question mark heading into 2020: Melifonwu has shown little since entering the league as a second-round draft pick in 2017, while both Gant and Pickett are virtual unknowns at this point in their respective career. They are expected to enter their second years in the NFL as fringe-roster players.
The most interesting name on the list of strong safeties above is certainly Terrence Brooks. A free agency signing by the Patriots in 2019, Brooks served as the team’s fourth option at the position behind McCourty, Chung and Harmon — seeing most of his snaps as a box safety. He has the versatility to line up deep as well, however, something he did frequently during his time with the New York Jets. Could New England therefore use the 28-year-old as a potential Harmon replacement? It certainly seems possible if the team wants to look for an in-house heir to his role.