Ever since Patrick Chung’s return from a one-year stint with the Philadelphia Eagles, the New England Patriots’ safety group was headed by three players: he himself as well as Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon. McCourty and Chung served as the top options at free and strong safety, respectively, with Harmon mostly being used as a deep-field defender to help free up McCourty to carry out other assignments. Over the years, the trio was among the best in the NFL.
Heading into 2020, however, changes are afoot: Harmon was traded to the Detroit Lions, while the team signed Adrian Phillips and Cody Davis in free agency before also drafting Kyle Dugger in the second round. Out of those offseason acquisitions only Dugger can be seen as a lock to make the 53-man roster alongside McCourty and Chung, but how the roles will be distributed among all of them still remains to be seen and will be decided over the course of the next few weeks.
With that in mind, let’s meet the competitors.
S Kyle Dugger, S Adrian Phillips, S Terrence Brooks, S Cody Davis, S Malik Gant, S Adarius Pickett
As noted above, Dugger is a lock to make the Patriots’ roster due to his draft status and developmental upside. He is one of three players to be brought aboard this offseason: Adrian Phillips was signed to a two-year deal after he rose to prominence with the San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers; Cody Davis served primarily as a special teamer in Jacksonville but also offers some experience from his time with the Los Angeles Rams.
The three have joined a returning group consisting of Terrence Brooks, who is entering his second year in New England’s system after serving as the number four safety last season, as well as depth options Malik Gant and Adarius Pickett. Gant spent his 2019 rookie year on injured reserve, while Pickett was signed to the practice squad in mid-December.
The deciding factors
Communication and diagnosis: While linebacker Dont’a Hightower is the defense’s primary on-field communicator, the safety position also is highly important to ensure that the entire secondary is on the same page before a play. McCourty and Chung have proven themselves time and again in this area, and the competitors listed above will also get up to speed quickly to diagnose plays and communicate with their fellow defensive backs to prevent any coverage or run-fit breakdowns from happening.
Instincts: Given how the Patriots use their safeties, their instincts are regularly challenged. Just take the aforementioned Duron Harmon as an example: he may not have had any outstanding measurables, but he showed a natural feel for the game aligning in the backend of the defense and it allowed him to turn into a big play machine. Younger players such as Dugger, Gant and Pickett need to show development in this area — something that could prove to be a challenge for the rookie Dugger due to the abbreviated offseason so far.
Ball skills: Whether it is bat-downs, tips or interceptions, defensive backs need to be able to play the ball. New England’s current group of safeties is no exception: McCourty had five interceptions and three additional pass breakups last year, with Chung breaking up three passes as well. Last year, Duron Harmon also chimed in three picks and two breakups — production that will need to be found elsewhere in 2020.
Positional versatility: As is the case at most other positions, versatility certainly could be the difference between making the roster or not. Whether it is Phillips’ abilities to play downhill, the special teams experience brought to the table by Brooks and Davis, or Gant’s ability to line up all over the formation — the more you can do, the better your chances of making the team and carving out a regular role.
Tackling: The Patriots employ an aggressive coverage scheme, which puts pressure on all its defensive backs to play with a sound technique and some strong tackling. The safety position is no exception — quite the opposite, actually: the last line of defense on most plays, the safeties will have to be consistent when it comes to taking down opposing ball-carriers. One missed tackle could have fatal consequences, especially when aligning deep in one-safety sets.
With Dugger locked in to take one of the spots alongside McCourty and Chung, the question will be how his role will look like. He could see extensive action in the return game, but also has the skillset to work as a rotational third/fourth safety — offering depth behind both starters. That said, the 24-year-old will have to quickly get up to speed over the course of training camp to actually earn regular playing time as a de facto Harmon replacement. If his adaptation from Division-II to the NFL takes longer, however, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Dugger receive only occasional looks on defense.
The other safeties currently on the roster could therefore carve out valuable roles. Brooks appears to have an advantage given his experience in the system, but Phillips in particular could give him a run for his money: he has shown that he can succeed in a versatile role but also perform on a high level in the kicking game. Don’t be surprised if the ex-Charger ends the 2020 season as New England’s number three safety in terms of defensive playing time — despite Dugger’s upside and Brooks’ experience.
The other safeties under contract, meanwhile, will likely have to leave their mark in the kicking game in order to make the team or practice squad and find some consistent playing time.