The New England Patriots’ secondary was the best in the league in 2019, and a big reason for the team’s defense as a whole finishing the year ranked first overall in points allowed. But while the play of All-Pro cornerback and NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore made the most headlines, the steady performance form the safety position played an equally important part in keeping the unit in lockdown mode for most of the season.
However, change is constant in pro football and the Patriots’ premier secondary is not immune to it either. Nowhere is that more apparent than the team’s safety position: not only is defensive captain Devin McCourty scheduled to enter unrestricted free agency later this month, he and fellow starter Patrick Chung will also be 33 years old once the new season gets kicked off in September. Number three safety Duron Harmon, meanwhile, will be 29.
Needless to say that New England will need to address the position soon. Luckily for the club, this year’s draft features some intriguing options to add behind or alongside McCourty, Chung and Harmon — from raw athletic standouts such as Kyle Dugger (Lenoir-Rhyne) and Tanner Muse (Clemson) in one of the later rounds, to more polished prospects such as Antoine Winfield Jr. (Minnesota) or Jeremy Chinn (Southern Illinois) earlier.
Two players stand out among the rest, however, as the clear-cut one-two punch at safety this year: LSU’s Grant Delpit and Alabama’s Xavier McKinney. There are arguments to be made in favor of both in case they are available when the Patriots are on the clock at the 23rd overall selection, but their biggest calling card is their ability to line up all over the defensive formation — much like McCourty does for New England on a week-to-week basis.
As a look at their snap numbers from their final year in college shows, coaches were not afraid of moving the two around quite a bit (via Pro Football Focus’ 2020 NFL Draft Guide)
- Grant Delpit, LSU (884 snaps): Free safety (385; 43.6%), Slot cornerback (316; 35.7%), Box safety (149; 16.9%), Defensive line (24; 2.7%), Perimeter cornerback (10; 1.1%)
- Xavier McKinney, Alabama (826 snaps): Box safety (285 snaps; 34.5%), Free safety (271; 32.8%), Slot cornerback (227; 27.5%), Defensive line (38; 4.6%), Perimeter cornerback (5; 0.6%)
As can be seen, Delpit and McKinney bring considerable experience playing numerous roles to the table, and they succeeded in most situations they found themselves in due to their combinations of vision and football intelligence as well as range and reactionary skills. What also helped them turn into Swiss Army Knife-type defenders for their respective teams also was their preparation and willingness to take whichever job the team needed the to do.
“That’s what I pride myself on, I think I am a very versatile player,” Delpit said at the NFL scouting combine last week (via CLNS Media’s Evan Lazar). “I think that’s probably my biggest strength on the defensive side. I’ll play anywhere in the secondary. This year, I played more free safety because that was what the team needed. So I played a lot or some of my snaps in the middle of the field. Watch my sophomore tape, freshman tape — I played all over the box, so I think I can do it all.”
Delpit, who will turn just 22 in September, is certainly an intriguing prospect in the first round of this year’s draft considering his experience and knowledge when it comes to wearing multiple hats at LSU. Even though he is still a work-in-progress in some areas of his game — most notably a comparatively high number of missed tackles — his developmental upside cannot be denied and was obvious whenever he took the field for the Tigers.
The same can be said about McKinney, who is as foundationally sound a player as they come. Like Delpit, he therefore projects to fit in nicely with the Patriots’ secondary due to his ability to play not one but multiple roles if need be. While he does not offer the same elite athletic profile as Devin McCourty, for example, his smarts and ball-skills should help him develop into a sound player capable of making an impact on day one.
McKinney knows about the challenges such a versatile role brings, though (via Evan Lazar): “It’s a lot more studying, I guess, than the average person will have to do for one position. It can be difficult trying to learn more than one check and more than one position, and knowing what you have to do. During the week I try to make sure that after every practice I’m going upstairs to watch film. I try to make sure I get the game plan.”
“I try to make sure that I know what I’m doing, and make sure that I do my job,” continued McKinney, who spent his college career under Bill Belichick confidante Nick Saban. “Every day before practice starts I’ll go upstairs and I’ll watch film, and then we’ll practice, and then after practice I’ll go upstairs and watch film again — and I’ll watch film on the other team to see how maybe I can do something or how something can be done.”
Both McKinney and Delpit have shown an ability to function in a role not tied to one particular position on defense, and know about their versatile skillsets and what they can offer to a team. If the Patriots want to invest in their secondary in the first round of the draft, the two youngsters therefore appear to be names to watch.