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Patriots 2021 free agency profile: Will Jason McCourty return to New England for one final season?

Related: Patriots free agency profile: FB Jakob Johnson

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Arizona Cardinals v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Coming off a disappointing 2020 campaign, the New England Patriots are headed into a pivotal offseason: they need to rebuild a roster that went just 7-9 last year and is in need of some major upgrades across the board. Part of those could be bringing back the players scheduled to enter free agency — and there are quite a few of them.

All in all, 26 players that were with New England in one way last season are in need of a new contract. Among them is cornerback Jason McCourty, who is an unrestricted free agent and will therefore hit the open market on March 17.

Hard facts

Name: Jason McCourty

Position: Cornerback

Jersey number: 30

Opening day age: 34

Size: 5-foot-11, 195 pounds

Contract status: Unrestricted free agent

Experience

What is his experience? As opposed to his twin brother and fellow Rutgers defensive back Devin McCourty, who stayed in school following the 2008 season, Jason decided to try his luck in the NFL and enter the draft. It took until the sixth round for him to hear his name called, however, until the Tennessee Titans picked him with the 203rd selection. Despite his draft status, however, McCourty earned a spot on the team’s 53-man roster and by his second year in the system was one of the Titans’ starting cornerbacks.

McCourty went on to spend the first eight years of his career in Tennessee, appearing in 108 games and registering 13 interceptions. Despite him perform on a high individual level, though, his teams consistently struggled and he was part of just two winning seasons with the Titans — not once appearing in the playoffs. This also did not change after the club decided to release him in 2017 and he signed a two-year pact with the Cleveland Browns: McCourty could not prevent the team from going 0-16 in his first year.

His second season in Cleveland never took place, because the team decided to trade him to New England in mid-March (and reunite him with his brother). The Patriots sent a sixth-round pick in the 2018 draft to the Browns for McCourty and a seventh-rounder — a drop of just 14 spots — and he promptly helped them to not just a playoff berth and division title, but also a championship. Since then, he has appeared in a combined 47 games for the Patriots in his role as a starter-level cornerback.

What did his 2020 season look like? Despite a groin injury effectively ending McCourty’s 2019 campaign and forcing him to undergo offseason surgery, the veteran returned to the Patriots for a third season after they decided to exercise the team option in his contract. While he become more involved as a leader on the team — he took a vocal stance on social justice matters and was later voted a captain for the first time — his on-field role did change a bit over the course of summer and into the regular season.

With J.C. Jackson taking over the top outside cornerback gig opposite reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore, McCourty was used in more of a rotational fashion compared to his first two seasons as a Patriot. Nevertheless, he still was given plenty of opportunities as part of a defense that relied on sub package looks more than any other in the NFL: McCourty was on the field for 665 of a possible 1,017 defensive snaps (65.4%) and appeared in all 16 of New England’s games.

Along the way, his positional usage changed as well. Not only was the 12-year veteran serving as the de facto number four cornerback behind Gilmore, Jackson and Jonathan Jones, he also was part of the Patriots’ safety rotation alongside his twin brother. McCourty was moved back to the free safety spot on a semi-regular basis, and also was regularly aligned closer to the box — all while still playing his established role as a perimeter cornerback and part-time slot defender.

While his versatility, experience and leadership were valuable assets for the Patriots’ defense in 2020, his performances on the field were uncharacteristically inconsistent: McCourty allowed 18 of the 29 passes thrown his way to be completed for 287 yards as well as four touchdowns. While he did register three pass breakups as well as a combined 41 tackles — 24 of them in the passing game — he failed to come up with an interception for just the fourth time in his career and also was flagged three times.

Free agency preview

What is his contract history? McCourty signed a four-year, $1.8 million rookie deal with the Titans back in 2009 and spent the first three seasons of his career under it. In 2012, however, he signed a six-year extension worth $43 million. While McCourty was released five years into the contract, he quickly found a new home in Cleveland on a two-year, $6 million pact. The second year of that deal was moved alongside him to New England, where he re-signed the following offseason on a two-year, $10 million deal. All in all, McCourty’s contractual career earnings are estimated at $53.9 million by Over the Cap.

Which teams might be in the running? Despite his age and up-and-down play in 2020, McCourty could be an attractive target for teams searching some established cornerback help. The Atlanta Falcons, Cincinnati Bengals, Denver Broncos, Green Bay Packers, Houston Texans and San Francisco 49ers might all be potential landing spots, according to the team needs list published by Pro Football Focus.

Why should he be expected back? Even though he will turn 34 in August and is coming off an inconsistent season, McCourty can still have value as an experienced rotational defensive back and team later — especially considering that the future of fellow cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson is in question. Keeping McCourty would ensure stability in the secondary at a relatively team-friendly salary cap number.

Why should he be expected to leave? The Patriots do have plenty of salary cap space to work with, but they might decide that now would be a good time to invest their resources elsewhere than in a 33-year-old who likely will not be around beyond the 2021 season anyway. Add the fact that youngsters such as Joejuan Williams and Myles Bryant are waiting in the pipeline, and New England might have little motivation to actually re-sign McCourty.

What is his projected free agency outcome? Keeping McCourty on a one-year deal near the veteran’s minimum — which would be $1.08 million for a player of his experience — might be in the best interest for both sides: New England would keep him around alongside his twin brother for one more year, while McCourty himself would get to finish his career in a familiar setting. That being said, the Patriots are hardly known for sentimentality and there is a realistic chance they decide against pursuing him given his age and recent drop-off.