Following the NFL draft and subsequent free agency period, the New England Patriots currently have 89 of a possible 90 players under contract. However, only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns on September 5 and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots keep their dynasty alive in Year One after Tom Brady.
Today, the series continues with one of New England’s most experienced players.
Name: Patrick Chung
Jersey number: 23
Opening day age: 33
Size: 5-foot-11, 215 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2023 (2024 UFA)
What is his experience? Chung originally arrived in the NFL in 2009, and his career since then can be divided up into two parts: BP and AP — before and after Philadelphia. The first era started when the Patriots drafted him in the second round and lasted through his entire four-year rookie contract. Over that time, the Oregon product appeared in a combined 57 regular season and playoff games for the team and served as a versatile starter in New England’s secondary that was used at both safety positions and as a slot cornerback.
Chung, who also saw regular action in the kicking game over that time, was one of the few bright spots in the Patriots’ secondary between 2009 and 2012. However, he never quite lived up to his draft status — in part due to his usage — and therefore was allowed to leave the organization in free agency to sign a three-year, $10 million contract with the Philadelphia Eagles. While Chung started 10 of his 12 contests in 2013, he struggled to adapt to the new system and was released again after only one season.
This paved the way for him to make his glorious return to the Patriots. With Devin McCourty now firmly entrenched as the team’s starting free safety, the team was free to move Chung to a safety/linebacker-hybrid role that better suited his skillset. Chung blossomed in this role and developed into one of the best strong safeties in the NFL — one that appeared in 91 regular season games and 15 playoff contests over the six seasons since his return to New England. Along the way, he played a key role in helping the team win three Super Bowls.
What did his 2019 season look like? Chung’s preparations for the 2019 season started with rehabilitation work. After breaking his forearm during the Patriots’ victory in Super Bowl 53 and undergoing offseason shoulder surgery, he took a cautious approach during spring practices: while he was spotted during organized team activities, he sat out mandatory minicamp and only returned to the field in more prominent capacity when New England opened its training camp in late July (albeit initially in a red non-contact jersey).
Despite starting his 2019 campaign that way, Chung, who also signed a one-year contract extension in April, was back in full when the Patriots kicked off their regular season against the Pittsburgh Steelers. From that point on, his season looked very much like his last five since returning from his one-year stint in Philadelphia: Chung served as the team’s undisputed top option at the box safety/linebacker role, and saw prominent action and playing time no matter the situation or opponent.
In this role, the veteran was on the field for 13 of New England’s 16 regular season games and 642 of the team’s 1,008 defensive snaps (64%). Along the way, he delivered another generally productive season even though he performed better as a run defender and when playing downhill than in coverage: during his 13 regular season contests, Chung surrendered 31 catches on 44 targets for a combined yardage of 328 as well as one touchdown.
He did fare somewhat better during New England’s lone postseason game against the Tennessee Titans, though, at least from a purely statistical perspective: he was not targeted even once. However, the number is misleading considering that Chung had to leave the contest just 13 snaps in after suffering an ankle injury in the first quarter. In general, injuries were a problem for the veteran defender throughout the year — even after his recovery from the forearm and shoulder issues that plagued him during the offseason.
Besides leaving the Patriots’ wild card playoff game due to his ankle, Chung also missed three games during the 2019 season because of injury. He was out in Week 5 against the Washington Redskins because of a heel injury, as well as in Weeks 7 and 11 against the New York Jets and his former team, the Eagles, due to heel and chest issues. Chung’s 10th season in a New England uniform can therefore be described as a challenging one both on and off the field.
What is his projected role? While Chung started his career with the Patriots as a versatile defensive back moved all over the formation, his usage in 2020 is expected to look like it did every year since his return from Philadelphia in 2014: he will serve as a safety/linebacker-hybrid and as such be employed both in the running game and as a coverage defender versus tight ends and running back. Chung will therefore regularly see the field on all three defensive downs.
What is his special teams value? Between 2009 and 2018, excluding his one season with the Eagles, the Patriots regularly used Chung on special teams. In 2019, however, his usage changed a bit and he was on the field for only 20 of the team’s 474 kicking game snaps (4.2%) — playing primarily on kick coverage and extra point/field goal blocking units. Given this limited usage in combination with his age and injury history, he is therefore not expected to see considerably more action in the game’s third phase heading into 2020.
Does he have positional versatility? New England does have a clear usage for Chung in mind, as outlined above, but he has shown considerable versatility within it. In 2019, for example, he did not just line up in the box from a more traditional strong safety alignment, he also saw regular action as a slot and perimeter cornerback (124 and 48 snaps, respectively), on the defensive line (113 snaps), and as a free safety (30 snaps). The new season projects to be more of the same for Chung in this regard.
What is his salary cap situation? Just earlier this week, the Patriots and Chung agreed on a two-year contract extension that will keep the 32-year-old in New England through the 2023 season. As part of this deal, the Patriots reduced his salary cap hit from previously $6.06 million to $5.13 million while simultaneously adding a $3 million signing bonus. Given the extension plus the guarantees attached to it, Chung can now be seen as a lock to make the Patriots’ 53-man roster.
What is his roster outlook? While Chung will make the team, there are questions surrounding his status in 2020. For one, he did miss time because of three different injuries last season and needs to show that he can return to form. Furthermore, the Patriots invested heavily in their safety position during the offseason by signing free agents Adrian Phillips and Cody Davis, and by drafting Kyle Dugger in the second round. Chung seeing a slightly reduced role could therefore be in the cards for him this year.