After it was kicked off on Monday, the New England Patriots’ opt-out bonanza continued on Tuesday as three more players decided to sit out the 2020 season over concerns about the Coronavirus pandemic. Linebacker Dont’a Hightower and running back Brandon Bolden will not wear the team’s uniform this year, as will safety Patrick Chung — the latter becoming the sixth member of the team to opt out of his deal for the upcoming campaign.
Just like Hightower, Chung was projected to resume his starting role on the Patriots’ defense this season: he served as the team’s top safety/linebacker hybrid ever since his return in 2014 from a one-year stint with the Philadelphia Eagles — developing into a core member of the team’s second dynastic run along the way. Now, however, New England will have to find a way to replace him and his potential contributions to the unit.
While there always is a chance that more talent gets added via free agency or trade, here is what the team’s safety position looks like with Chung now opting out (while keeping in mind that the labels are non-exclusive).
The free safety carries plenty of deep-field responsibilities, but in New England is also frequently used to create scheme-dependent coverage mismatches: the Patriots like to move their free safeties all over the formation.
For the time being, and barring any additional opt-outs, the Patriots have only two true free safeties on their roster. Devin McCourty is of course one of the best players his position has to offer, and an elite defensive back due to his blend of versatility and range in combination with an outstanding football IQ. The 32-year-old also is the unit’s most experienced player — and one whose leadership becomes even more important with Dont’a Hightower not suiting up this year.
The Patriots have free agency acquisition Cody Davis as a depth option behind McCourty, but might want to add more bodies at the position given the fact that he has more prominently been featured in the kicking game in the past. While looking to the free agency or trade markets might bring the necessary relief, it would not be a surprise if the team decided to look at its own roster for help: cornerbacks Joejuan Williams and Myles Bryant all have experience at safety as well, for example.
The most interesting name might be Terrence Brooks, though. A free agency signing by the Patriots last year, Brooks served as the team’s fourth option at the position behind McCourty, Chung and Duron Harmon — seeing most of his snaps as a box safety. He has the versatility to line up deep as well, however, something he did frequently during his time with the New York Jets. Could New England therefore use the 28-year-old as another potential free safety option? It certainly seems possible.
The strong safety plays closer to the line of scrimmage and often serves as a de facto linebacker. In New England’s scheme, they have responsibilities both downhill against the run and in coverage versus tight ends.
Despite turning 33 in August and having dealt with an array of injuries during the 2019 season, Patrick Chung was locked in as New England’s top strong safety option after agreeing to a reworked deal earlier this offseason. He has held this position ever since returning to the Patriots in 2014 after a one-year stint with the Philadelphia Eagles, after all, and was therefore expected to again fill it in 2020. His opt-out, however, changes the complexion of the strong safety position and puts more pressure on the other players.
Luckily for the Patriots, all three of them have upside in the team’s hybrid system. Brooks, as noted above, offers upside to play both the strong safety role previously held by Chung and align as a deep safety in the mold of McCourty as well. Adrian Phillips, meanwhile, was added by the team this year and is one of the most versatile defensive backs in the entire league: he will likely see most of his playing time closer to the box in a Chung-like role, but could also fill other spots within New England’s secondary.
And then there is Kyle Dugger. The Patriots’ highest draft pick this year — he was selected 37th overall out of Lenoir-Rhyne — does not have the benefit of actual offseason practices, but offers an intriguing skillset: he could fill the box safety role previously held by Chung, but might also be used deep. Either way, Dugger is a chess-piece defender whose positional flexibility could prove valuable this year. The same, of course, can also be said about aforementioned cornerbacks Joejuan Williams and Myles Bryant.
Either way, the Patriots do have some in-house options to replace Chung. They may not have the same pedigree or experience, but they do have the upside to find success filling the veteran’s former role.