The New England Patriots’ top-ranked defense suffered some major losses this offseason, with safety Patrick Chung opting out as just the latest personnel blow. In true Bill Belichick fashion, however, it is what it is: the team will find a way to replace the lost talent, which means that it also will need to find a new strong safety to take over Chung’s role in the slot and as a hybrid box defender.
Who will the Patriots look at in order to do that? They certainly have some options on current their roster.
The current elder-statesman in the Patriots’ secondary is typically more of a deep safety who bumps down to cover running backs, slot receivers, and the occasional receiving tight end on passing downs. But now that he is their most experienced coverage player at the safety position, it’s only fair to assume that we will see him in more of a box role than we have in recent years.
There is a crack in this theory, though. With Duron Harmon in Detroit, McCourty is now the only safety on the roster with experience playing centerfield and getting the secondary in position to win the down. This may force him to play more single-high safety than he has in previous years when Harmon could reliably man the spot in obvious passing situations.
If former Jaguar xCody Davis can carve out a leadership role quickly, it would go a long way in freeing up McCourty to line up wherever he’s needed. But that’s a lot to ask of a newcomer in our current global climate (it’s sickly outside)
The undersized, do-it-all speedster in the secondary has already spent time rotating with Chung at deep safety in the Patriots’ base defense when they want to stay heavy against teams that like using crossers off of play action.
Jones is a phenomenal tackler and plays well above his weight class, but I still think his best safety role is away from the box and tight ends where his size becomes a big disadvantage.
Pat Chung may not be as nimble as he was a few Super Bowl rings ago, but his physicality and ability to jam tight ends off the line was enough to keep him in the hip of some premier talents. He may have allowed a long reception here and there, but the swiss army knife is far from the liability he’s often portrayed to be.
If anyone on the Patriots’ roster is capable of mixing it up in close quarters with tight ends, it’s lean, mean Joejuan Williams. We saw when J.C. Jackson shadowed Travis Kelce at times in 2019’s AFC Championship Game that the Patriots are willing to use a young corner buried on the depth chart to check big receiving tight ends.
Williams may not be J.C. Jackson, but he brings a Brandon Browner-esque presence to the secondary with his combination of length and press-man skills. The former second-round pick has a perfect opportunity to show the coaching staff what he can do in a niche defensive role perfectly suited for his strengths.
Michael Jackson Sr.
While officially listed as a cornerback — the position he played since arriving in the NFL last year — the Patriots’ newest trade acquisition has some of the skills that could make him a viable replacement for Chung: he’s a strong tackler whose upside against the run was on display throughout his two years as a starter in Miami.
Accordingly, Jackson might get a shot at filling Chung’s role in New England’s system as well.
Yup I'm in love.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) August 9, 2020
Plenty capable of taking over for Chung in the slot and down in the box if he can get up to speed. Isn't intimidated by blockers or contact. Also a strong tackler who makes an effort to attack the football on arrival pic.twitter.com/bbT4YEzPMA
Jackson playing safety would be nothing new for him. There are some clips on his college tape which show him rotating to deep safety as a response to motion. It looks like he generally took good angles to the ball whenever he had an opportunity.
What truly sets Patrick Chung apart from his peers in the versatile safety pool is his effectiveness in the box. He does more than cover oversized flankers, he can drop down into the box and fly around with a linebacker’s mentality and tackling ability. Chung had a heavy role in the Patriots’ big nickel “tite” defense, which placed the safety at weak-side linebacker behind a five-man front designed to flush runs outside.
Safety-linebacker hybrid Adrian Phillips served as the cog of the 2018 Chargers’ similar big dime defense, which featured eight defensive backs to contain a rookie Lamar Jackson in the playoffs. The scheme was effective against Baltimore that day, capitalizing on speed and a talented defensive front to shut down a sleeping juggernaut. However, the Chargers could not adequately adjust to the Patriots’ downhill run game the following week and were promptly booted from the postseason.
If there’s one thing Bill Belichick knows, it’s adaptability, and he knows to pick his spots to avoid overwhelming an aggressive, but unavoidably undersized box defender. He does an excellent job of keeping players clean to fly to the ball and make plays, a role Phillips helped bring to prominence for modern defenses.
It wouldn’t be fair to expect much from a rookie safety who’s coming from a Division II school and being forced to miss live exhibition games due to a global pandemic.
However, Dugger’s explosive athleticism will be hard to ignore if the Patriots can’t adequately replace Chung with their veterans. The Lenoir-Rhyne product’s ability to hold up tight ends off the line and frame to hold up in the box made him an easy-projection as Chung’s heir. But with the king sitting this campaign out, the probability of seeing Dugger in live action becomes harder to ignore.
Please make sure to support Taylor in his continued quest to keep creating NFL, entertainment, and mental health content. For more information, head over to Patreon.