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 a member of New England’s secondary.
Name: Jason McCourty
Jersey number: 30
Opening day age: 33
Size: 5-foot-11, 195 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2020 (2021 UFA)
What is his experience? As opposed to his twin brother and fellow Rutgers defensive back Devin McCourty, who stayed in school following the 2008 season, Jason decided to try his luck in the NFL and enter the draft. It took until the sixth round for him to hear his name called, however, until the Tennessee Titans picked him with the 203rd selection. Despite his draft status, however, McCourty earned a spot on the team’s 53-man roster and by his second year in the system was one of the Titans’ starting cornerbacks.
McCourty went on to spend the first eight years of his career in Tennessee, appearing in 108 games and registering 13 interceptions. Despite him perform on a high individual level, though, his teams consistently struggled and he was part of just two winning seasons with the Titans — not once appearing in the playoffs. This also did not change after the club decided to release him in 2017 and he signed a two-year pact with the Cleveland Browns: McCourty could not prevent the team from going 0-16 in his first year.
His second season in Cleveland never took place, because the team decided to trade him to New England in mid-March (and reunite him with his brother). The Patriots sent a sixth-round pick in the 2018 draft to the Browns for McCourty and a seventh-rounder — effectively a drop of 14 spots — and he promptly helped them to not just a playoff berth and division title, but also a championship. Along the way, the veteran defender made one of the Super Bowl’s signature plays when he knocked a would-be touchdown pass out of Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Brandin Cooks’ hands.
What did his 2019 season look like? Coming off the most successful season of his career as well as his first Super Bowl win, McCourty returned to New England by signing a two-year, $10 million contract with the club on the first day of 2019’s free agency period. The deal allowed the Patriots to keep their starting secondary from the championship season intact, with the veteran as the top perimeter cornerback option on the other side of All-Pro Stephon Gilmore — at least early on during the season.
McCourty began his second year with the club by playing a prominent role in each of the first 10 games of the season. Along the way, he saw considerable action both on the outside and in the slot while regularly being matched up with one of the opponents’ top-two receiving options. Despite consistently facing challenging assignments often on a one-on-one basis, McCourty played some impressive football and allowed less than half of the passes thrown his way to be completed between Weeks 1 and 11.
During preparations for New England’s Week 12 game against the Dallas Cowboys, however, he injured his groin — a lingering issue that would allow him to play in just two more games over the remainder of the season, and be on the field for only eight more defensive snaps. The Patriots did not place the 32-year-old on their season-ending injured reserve list, but his campaign effectively came to an end because of it. The team’s defense continued to play impressive football, but losing McCourty meant losing a reliable playmaker.
After all, he had been on the field for 71.9% of New England’s defensive snaps over the first 10 games (466 of 648) and finished the season with some outstanding statistics: opposing quarterbacks attempted 42 passes against McCourty’s coverage, but he allowed only 20 of them to be completed for a combined 188 yards. He also registered an interception — in Week 5 against the Washington Redskins — and added seven more pass breakups. His groin injury, unfortunately, ended what had been a quality season up until that point.
What is his projected role? McCourty had to undergo offseason surgery on his groin, but once he returns to the field is expected to play his usual role as a top-three outside cornerback in New England’s scheme. As such, he is projected to once again see considerable snaps in 2020 — most of them on the perimeter, with some also coming in the slot depending on the Patriots’ defensive alignment. It remains to be seen if McCourty will carry starter status, but he will likely play more than 60% of snaps on a week-to-week basis.
What is his special teams value? While not as prominent a part of his play, McCourty did see some action in the kicking game over his two years since arriving in New England. In 2019, for example, he was on the field for a combined 41 snaps in the game’s third phase (of 474; 8.6%): he was used on both punt and kick return units as well as kickoff coverage, but his most prominent role was that of a flanker on field goal and extra point block teams. McCourty’s special teams value is limited, but it does exist.
Does he have positional versatility? Within his defensive role, the Patriots have used McCourty prominently both on the perimeter and on the inside: last year he played 262 snaps split out wide (55.3%) compared to 157 coming from the slot (33.1%). He has furthermore also shown that he has the versatility to find success regardless of scheme, and can perform as both a man-to-man and a zone cornerback.
What is his salary cap situation? Before the start of the new league year in mid-March, the Patriots had to make a decision whether or not to keep McCourty by exercising a $500,000 option bonus in his contract. The team did just that, and the 32-year-old will therefore be on its roster with a salary cap hit of $5.55 million in 2020. New England could create net savings of around $2.5 million by releasing him, and a bit more in case of a trade, but both seem unlikely given his status as an experienced starting-caliber cornerback.
What is his roster outlook? While the emergence of fellow cornerbacks J.C. Jackson and Joejuan Williams could have an impact on his eventual role and playing time, McCourty should be considered a relatively safe bet to make the Patriots’ 53-man roster: his experience and communication skills in combination with his pre-injury performance the last two years makes for a quality presence within the team’s secondary. While the recovery from his offseason surgery could alter his preparation timeline for the new season, he is expected to eventually return to full strength and contribute once the season starts.