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Patriots 2021 offseason preview: Safety position one of the deepest, most experienced on New England’s roster

Related: Patriots offseason preview: New England’s cornerback position is set, for now

Arizona Cardinals Vs. New England Patriots At Gillette Stadium Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

While the NFL playoffs are still underway with two teams left standing, the New England Patriots are already in the process of turning their attention towards what lies ahead: after not qualifying for the postseason for the first time since 2008, the offseason has arrived at Gillette Stadium — and it will be one of major intrigue considering that the 7-9 squad has a long list of players scheduled to enter free agency once the new league year begins.

With that in mind, let’s break down where the Patriots stand at this point in time one position after the other. Today, we continue things at the safety position.

Terrence Brooks

Age: 28

Experience: 7

Contract status: Set to enter unrestricted free agency on March 17.

2020 review: Terrence Brooks did appear in 14 games during the 2020 season but was unable to carve out a bigger role on defense after serving as the number four safety in 2019. Despite the Patriots losing both Patrick Chung (opt-out) and Duron Harmon (trade) during the offseason, he was behind the top trio of Devin McCourty, Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger throughout most of the year and as a result played only one-fourth of New England’s defensive snaps.

He did see a bigger playing time share in the kicking game, though, playing 35.2 percent of snaps in the game’s third phase.

2021 preview: While the Patriots could decide to bring Brooks back in free agency especially with Patrick Chung’s future up in the air, it would not be a surprise to see the team decide against it. He was merely a depth option on defense, and his special teams contributions alone are likely not worth investing considerable resources in the 28-year-old.

Patrick Chung

Age: 33

Experience: 12

Contract status: Under contract through the 2024 season. Chung has a salary cap hit of $5.13 million in 2021.

2020 review: Just two months after agreeing to a two-year contract extension with the Patriots, Patrick Chung decided to sit out the 2020 campaign. The veteran safety and three-time Super Bowl winner exercised the Coronavirus opt-out clause because of family considerations. Accordingly, Chung spent the entire season on the proverbial sidelines.

2021 preview: Chung is in the same basic boat as fellow veteran opt-outs Dont’a Hightower and Marcus Cannon: he has been a cornerstone of New England’s Dynasty 2.0, but is no lock to return after opting out of the 2020 season. If the soon-to-be 34-year-old does come back, however, the Patriots will have to make a decision about his role on the team. Adrian Phillips performed well in the “star” position as a safety/linebacker hybrid, which means that Chung might be used in more of a rotational capacity moving forward.

Cody Davis

Age: 31

Experience: 8

Contract status: Set to enter unrestricted free agency on March 17.

2020 review: Sign to a one-year pact in free agency, Cody Davis played a prominent role for the Patriots in 2020 — just not at his listed position of safety: the veteran was a key special teamer and one of the most consistent players on the roster. While a rib injury forced him to miss three games, Davis still finished third on the team in kicking game snaps and registered nine tackles as well as a blocked field goal attempt that was returned for a touchdown by Devin McCourty.

2021 preview: Davis’ special teams contributions make him an intriguing under-the-radar member of New England’s 2021 free agency class. While it remains to be seen how active of a market he will create, the 31-year-old appears to be a prime candidate to be brought back under the right conditions particularly with Justin Bethel a free agent as well and Matthew Slater’s future uncertain.

Kyle Dugger

Age: 24

Experience: 1

Contract status: Under contract through the 2023 season. Dugger has a salary cap hit of $1.89 million in 2021.

2020 review: Few players during Bill Belichick’s tenure as Patriots head coach had as impressive a rookie season as Kyle Dugger. The second-round draft pick out of Lenoir-Rhyne did not just make the impressive jump from the Division-II level to the NFL without any major problems, he also carved out a versatile role in New England’s defensive backfield: Dugger played primarily as a box safety, but was moved all over the formation.

Along the way, he repeatedly showcased his elite athletic skillset and natural instincts. Dugger finished the season with 14 in-game appearances — starting seven of the final eight — and as the third safety alongside Devin McCourty and Adrian Phillips.

2021 preview: Dugger’s first season in the NFL was an encouraging one, and he appears to be on his way to become a cornerstone of the team’s defense sooner rather than later. While it remains to be seen how his second-year jump will look like, the future is a bright one for the 24-year-old if he can build on the foundation he laid in 2020.

Devin McCourty

Age: 33

Experience: 11

Contract status: Under contract through the 2021 season. McCourty has a salary cap hit of $11.15 million in 2021.

2020 review: Despite coming off the final year of his contract, McCourty never made it to free agency last spring: the Patriots kept their long-time team captain on a two-year, $23 million contract extension (one that includes three additional void years tagged on to it). McCourty followed up the deal with another quality season that saw him lead New England’s defense in snaps and play an integral role in the secondary.

Along the way, the former first-round draft pick appeared in all 16 games and registered a pair of interceptions. One was returned for a touchdown, as was a blocked field goal he scooped up and ran back for a score. On top of it all, McCourty also served as the Patriots’ defensive signal caller for most of the year after taking over the role from linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley early in the season.

2021 preview: At age 33, McCourty would be a realistic candidate for retirement. However, he already confirmed that he plans on returning in 2021 — and anything but him playing for the Patriots would be a major surprise. Frankly, the veteran should be expected to play a role similar to the one he held the last few years as well: as a starter-level defender capable of playing both as a deep safety and closer to the line of scrimmage.

Adrian Phillips

Age: 28

Experience: 7

Contract status: Under contract through the 2021 season. Phillips has a salary cap hit of $3.5 million in 2021.

2020 review: Three days after trading Duron Harmon to the Detroit Lions, the Patriots bolstered their safety depth by signing Adrian Phillips to a two-year pact. The veteran addition immediately made an impact on his new team: Phillips took over the aforementioned “star” position and as such was asked to bolster the depth at linebacker while playing a prominent role in New England’s front seven and defensive backfield.

While not always put in the best position to succeed, Phillips did do a good job considering the circumstances. The 28-year-old appeared in all 16 of New England’s games, registered a pair of interceptions, and also notched a sack. In short: he was a key member of the team’s defense during what was a challenging year for the entire unit.

2021 preview: Phillips’ first season as a Patriot showed his potential in the system, but the question is how he will be used in 2021 and with Patrick Chung also possibly coming back. Ideally, New England will take advantage of his versatility again while not having to rely on him to serve as an additional linebacker: more depth at the position — be it through Dont’a Hightower’s return, the development of second-year men Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings, or the addition of outside talent — could free Phillips up to play a role better suited for him.