Long as steady a position as any on the New England Patriots’ roster, the team’s safety group has seen quite a bit of change over the last two offseasons. While Devin McCourty continued to serve as the group’s leader throughout this process, he saw the arrival of Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips and Jalen Mills as well as the departures of Duron Harmon and Terrence Brooks.
On Thursday, the latter group saw one more addition: Patrick Chung decided to call it a career after 11 seasons and 176 NFL games — the vast majority of which as a member of the Patriots. Chung’s retirement is coming after a year spent on the Coronavirus opt-out list, which actually gave New England a first glimpse at life without the long-time starting box safety.
The options to replace him might therefore all be on the roster already, so let’s take a look at them.
Devin McCourty, Kyle Dugger, Jalen Mills
New England loves to employ defensive backs who fit more than just one mold, and Devin McCourty, Kyle Dugger and recently signed Jalen Mills perfectly fit that description. The three, after all, have the range to successfully play the deep field but also offer the size and physicality to play up in the box as well. On top of it all, they also can be moved to the cornerback position if need be.
With McCourty turning 34 this summer and entering the final year of his contract, the writing is on the wall that 2021 might be the last season of his (Hall of Fame?) career. Dugger and Mills, on the other hand, are younger options at 24 and 26, respectively. They give New England long-term upside and an ability to not just help replace Chung’s role closer to the line of scrimmage, but McCourty’s primarily back deep as well.
Even though Adrian Phillips offers a similar level of versatility as McCourty, Dugger and Mills, the Patriots opted to use him either in the box or on the line of scrimmage on 85 percent of his defensive snaps last season. They obviously like his physicality and what he brings to the table in the hybrid safety/linebacker role since getting added in free agency last year.
“Adrian is a linebacker at heart. He just stopped growing a little early, a little sooner than the rest of us,” New England assistant coach Jerod Mayo said about Phillips during the 2020 regular season.
With the roles that Phillips played last year looking similar to Chung’s, he appears to be the leading candidate to replace him. Of course, the Patriots will likely try to take advantage of their personnel’s versatility and not use a single player to fill the void: Phillips will be prominently featured, but so will Dugger and Mills.
While Devin McCourty plays back deep a majority of the time, the Patriots actually have only one player on their roster who can be labeled as a pure free safety — one that did not play a single defensive snap for the team in 2020: special teams ace Cody Davis, who announced this week that he will be back in New England on a new two-year contract. Based on his usage last year, however, Davis does not factor into the safety mix even with Chung gone.
Jonathan Jones, Joejuan Williams, Myles Bryant
The Patriots like to move their defensive backs around, and their cornerback group is also part of this. Last year, New England opted to use slot cornerback Jonathan Jones, former second-round draft pick Joejuan Williams, and undrafted rookie Myles Bryant in safety alignments as well.
While only one of the three is a lock to be on the team last year (Jones), versatility could be the key for the others to once again make the cut and earn some time on the field. The Patriots certainly seem to value that, even though it will not play that big a role when it comes to replacing Patrick Chung’s contributions.