The New England Patriots have one of the best secondaries in all of football, but the group is getting a bit long in the tooth at the safety position: Devin McCourty, who is scheduled to enter unrestricted free agency later this month, and Patrick Chung will both be 33 when the 2020 season gets kicked off, while Duron Harmon is the youngster among the top-three at the position at 29 years old. Needless to say that it would benefit from an infusion of youth.
A bold offseason signing proposed by advanced analytics website Football Outsiders would address just that. In a piece titled Daring moves for all 32 NFL teams this offseason written for ESPN In$ider, the Patriots are listed with the following move: letting McCourty walk in free agency and going after Denver Broncos safety Justin Simmons. The rationale behind the proposed acquisition is explained as follows:
Denver Broncos safety Simmons, an unrestricted free agent this offseason, is an ascending star and would be close to a household name if the Broncos had been any good recently. Not only can Simmons fill in for McCourty as a deep-middle safety for the Patriots, he can move all around the back end to provide Bill Belichick with yet another chess piece. Simmons snagged four interceptions last season in addition to 15 passes defended.
Adding Simmons’ star power and versatility to a stacked cornerback group that thrives in press-man coverage could be the key to New England’s defense maintaining its 2019 form. While Simmons will surely come with a hefty price tag, the Patriots should have no reservations about throwing money around, assuming quarterback Tom Brady comes back for one or two more seasons.
Simmons certainly has proven himself an outstanding player since the Broncos selected him in the third round of the NFL’s 2016 draft: the Boston College product has appeared in 58 of a possible 64 games over the last four seasons, and while his raw numbers are solid — he has 11 interceptions on his résumé, including one returned for a touchdown — they do not reflect what the 26-year-old would bring to the table for a team like the Patriots.
After all, Simmons has the range and play recognition to become a major difference maker in New England’s secondary as a versatile free safety capable of playing as a deep centerfielder or closer to the line of scrimmage. In this role, he would be replacing Devin McCourty, who is coming off one of the best seasons of his 10 years in the NFL and still one of the best safeties in football. However, he is not guaranteed to keep up his pace entering the twilight of his career.
On paper, such a move would therefore make some sense for the Patriots even though Simmons would have big shoes to fill. McCourty helped New England win three Super Bowls, and is well-established as a starter in the secondary and a leader inside the locker room. However, Simmons is six years younger and has a proven track-record as well. He would fit in well with the Patriots’ aggressive man-coverage scheme.
There is one major problem, though, that spoils Football Outsiders’ plan: the franchise tag. As Broncos general manager John Elway pointed out during his press conference at the scouting combine last week (and before the article was published on ESPN), Denver plans to use the franchise tag on Simmons in case a long-term deal with him cannot be reached. The chances of him leaving the team to join the Patriots are therefore slim to none.
New England, after all, would have to send two first-round draft picks to the Broncos in order to sign Simmons away from under the tag. Such an investment makes little actual sense for the Patriots despite the safety’s undeniable talent. The bold proposition posted is therefore just that, but not really a scenario New England would entertain.