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Patriots 2020 roster breakdown: Devin McCourty returns as the leader of New England’s secondary

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Related: Patriots roster breakdown: CB Jonathan Jones

New England Patriots v Washington Redskins Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

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 core member of New England’s defense.

Hard facts

Name: Devin McCourty

Position: Safety

Jersey number: 32

Opening day age: 33

Size: 5-foot-11, 195 pounds

Contract status: Theoretically under contract through 2024, but deal voids after 2021 (2022 UFA)

Experience

What is his experience? One year after his twin brother, fellow defensive back Jason McCourty, entered the NFL, Devin did the same. However, he heard his name called a lot earlier in the draft: while Jason was selected 203rd overall, Devin became a first-round choice when the Patriots picked him in the 27th spot — an investment that paid early dividends: McCourty carved out a role as a starting cornerback right away, and finished his rookie season with seven interceptions and two forced fumbles. Unfortunately, McCourty was unable to keep up this pace in Year Two.

While he performed well on special teams and was voted a team captain for the first time in his career, he was inconsistent as the Patriots’ CB1. In 2012, the team therefore eventually decided to move the Rutgers product from perimeter cornerback to free safety following the trade acquisition of Aqib Talib. McCourty changing positions proved to be a stroke of genius: his range allowed him to successfully patrol the deep parts of the field, making life easier for the cornerback group while simultaneously upgrading the safety depth chart.

Ever since 2012, McCourty is a fixture as the Patriots’ top deep safety. As such, he played a pivotal role in keeping the team’s dynastic run alive into the 2010s — not just due to his elite abilities on the field, but also because of his leadership off it. Since arriving in New England, he helped the team win three Super Bowls while appearing in 155 regular season games and 23 playoff contests — missing just five combined games over the course of his career. McCourty has been the heart and soul of the Patriots’ secondary for a decade now, and one of the NFL’s best and most consistent safeties year-in and year-out.

What did his 2019 season look like? Coming off the third championship of his career and another productive individual performance, McCourty entered his 10th season in the Patriots’ system playing a familiar role: he was voted a team captain once again, and served as New England’s number one free safety. He was again among the league’s best players the position in 2019 due to his elite combination of athleticism, experience and durability, as well as his tremendous communication skills and his A-level anticipation and vision.

All in all, the veteran defensive back saw action in all 16 of the Patriots’ regular season contests as well as their lone playoff game. Along the way, he hardly left the field and finished the year as his team’s leader in defensive playing time: over the course of New England’s 17 games, he was on the field for 1,008 of a possible 1,070 snaps (94.2%). While his durability was impressive — McCourty was not once listed on an injury report all year — so were his abilities to make big plays in the backend of the Patriots’ defense.

McCourty played a key part in establishing New England’s secondary as the best in the NFL. No matter which role he eventually ended up playing — as he did in years past he regularly moved between deep centerfielder, box and two-deep safety, as well as perimeter and slot cornerback — the former first-round draft pick performed at a very high level and as a big-play machine: McCourty finished the season with five interceptions, which tied him for fourth in the league, and also registered a pair of forced fumbles as well as one recovery.

His impact on the number one scoring defense in football went beyond the statistics, however. Having McCourty guard the deep parts of the field as a rangy ball-hawk also allowed the Patriots to run an aggressive man-to-man scheme (oftentimes a variation of Cover 1) across the board as the de facto foundation of their coverage plan. With him in the middle and providing deep help against elite pass catchers, the team was able to challenge opposing offenses at the line of scrimmage while simultaneously disguising its intentions on a down-to-down basis.

Add the fact that McCourty again saw regular action in the kicking game as well — he played 148 of a possible 474 special teams snaps (31.2%), primarily on kickoff coverage — and you get an idea why he was one of the most valuable players on the Patriots’ roster in 2019. Despite once again being snubbed from Pro Bowl and All-Pro recognition, McCourty played on as high a level as any safety in football and delivered arguably the best season in a career filled with many outstanding ones.

2020 preview

What is his projected role? Ever since moving from cornerback to safety midway through the 2012 season, McCourty has served as the Patriots’ starting free safety. This usage is not expected to change in 2020: the 32-year-old will continue play the deep role in single high looks, be a part of two-deep schemes, and also move closer to the line of scrimmage in distinct situations. No matter how he is used, though, he will hardly ever leave the field.

What is his special teams value? While McCourty was a core special teamer early on his career, and also has 48 kickoff returns for a combined 982 yards and a touchdown on his résumé, his usage changed over the last few seasons. Nowadays, the veteran is primarily used as a coverage player on kickoffs and as a member of the Patriots’ field goal and extra point blocking units — roles he also is expected to fill heading into the new season.

Does he have positional versatility? McCourty may be listed as a safety on New England’s roster, but, as already pointed out above, his role extends far beyond the classic responsibilities of the position. In 2019, for example, he saw most of his action aligning deep (467 snaps), but also regularly played in the box (343 snaps) as well as either in the slot (98 snaps) or split out as a perimeter cornerback (39 snaps). In general, McCourty has proven himself a jack-of-all-trades in the Patriots’ secondary.

What is his salary cap situation? Before the start of the legal tampering period preceding this year’s free agency, the Patriots and McCourty agreed to what is effectively a two-year contract extension — it does run through 2024 for salary cap purposes, but voids after the 2021 season — worth a total of $23 million. In 2020, the team captain therefore is on the team’s books with a salary cap number of $5.4 million. Given his importance to New England’s defensive operation, McCourty can be seen as a bargain.

What is his roster outlook? McCourty is a lock to be on the Patriots’ 53-man roster this year not just due to the new contract he signed in March, but also because of his elite play from the safety position. The only real questions heading into 2020 are whether or not he will be able to perform at his usual high level even at age 33, and whether or not New England opts to use him in a slightly different role to also incorporate offseason safety additions Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips. Realistically, however, McCourty’s 11th year with the Patriots will look a lot like his first 10: he will see extensive action and play a valuable role.