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Patriots 2021 roster breakdown: Devin McCourty is still the leader of New England’s secondary, and a key to its success

Related: Patriots roster breakdown: CB Jonathan Jones

New England Patriots Vs. Seattle Seahawks at Centurylink Field Photo by Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

With mandatory minicamp underway, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2021.”

The team currently has 90 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in August and September and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots bounce back from what was a disappointing 7-9 season last year.

Today, the series continues with safety Devin McCourty.

Hard facts

Name: Devin McCourty

Position: Safety

Jersey number: 32

Opening day age: 34

Size: 5-foot-11, 195 pounds

Contract status: Theoretically under contract through 2024, but deal voids after 2021 (2022 UFA)

Experience

What is his experience? One year after his twin brother, fellow defensive back Jason McCourty, entered the NFL, Devin did the same. However, he heard his name called a lot earlier in the draft: while Jason was selected 203rd overall, Devin became a first-round choice when the Patriots picked him in the 27th spot — an investment that paid early dividends: McCourty carved out a role as a starting cornerback right away, and finished his rookie season with seven interceptions and two forced fumbles. Unfortunately, McCourty was unable to keep up this pace in Year 2.

While he performed well on special teams and was voted a team captain for the first time in his career, he was inconsistent as the Patriots’ CB1. In 2012, the team therefore eventually decided to move the Rutgers product from perimeter cornerback to free safety following the trade acquisition of Aqib Talib. McCourty changing positions proved to be a stroke of genius: his range allowed him to successfully patrol the deep parts of the field, making life easier for the cornerback group while simultaneously upgrading the safety depth chart.

Ever since 2012, McCourty is a fixture as the Patriots’ top deep safety. As such, he played a pivotal role in keeping the team’s dynastic run alive into the 2010s — not just due to his elite abilities on the field, but also because of his leadership off it. Since arriving in New England, he helped the team win three Super Bowls while appearing in 171 regular season games and 23 playoff contests — missing just five combined games over the course of his career. McCourty has been the heart and soul of the Patriots’ secondary for a decade now, and one of the NFL’s best and most consistent safeties year-in and year-out.

What did his 2020 season look like? McCourty entered his 11th season in the Patriots’ system with a new two-year, $23 million contract in hand and playing a familiar role: he was voted a team captain once again, and served as the leader of New England’s defensive backfield. He was again among the league’s better players the position in 2020 due to his elite combination of athleticism, experience and durability, as well as his tremendous communication skills and his A-level anticipation and vision.

All in all, the veteran defensive back saw action in all of the Patriots’ games during the 2020 season. Along the way, he hardly left the field and finished as his team’s leader in defensive playing time for the second year in a row: over the course of New England’s 16 contests, he was on the field for 961 of a possible 1,017 snaps (94.5%). While his durability was impressive — McCourty was listed on an injury report just once (Week 17; shoulder) — so were his abilities to make big plays in the backend of the Patriots’ defense.

Even though New England’s defense as a whole struggled, he continued to play at a high individual level regardless of the role he was used in. As he did in years past he regularly moved between deep centerfielder, box and two-deep safety, as well as perimeter and slot cornerback. In this versatile role the former first-round draft pick also made some of the unit’s biggest plays: McCourty finished the season with two interceptions and in Week 2 against the Seattle Seahawks returned one of them for a touchdown.

In general, McCourty proved himself a valuable and immensely important player once again. Guarding the deep parts of the field as a rangy ball-hawk, he allowed opposing quarterbacks to go just 9-for-22 for 104 yards and a pair of touchdowns when targeting him. He also broke up five of the passes thrown his way and added 68 tackles — 34 each in the passing and the running games; a perfect example of his versatile role and productivity no matter how the coaching staff opted to use him.

On top of it all, McCourty also was a contributor on special teams yet again. While he was primarily used in a highly specified role on place kick blocking units, he was still productive: in Week 13 against the Los Angeles Chargers, he scooped up a field goal attempt blocked by Cody Davis and returned the ball 44 yards for the second touchdown of his season — a new career high for McCourty. In total, the for the future Patriots (and Pro Football?) Hall of Famer was on the field for 65 of 399 snaps in the game’s third phase (16.3%).

While the 2020 season as a whole was a disappointment for New England and its defense, McCourty showed that he did not skip a beat even as he crossed the 190-game barrier. He was still a cornerstone of the Patriots’ secondary as well as an important leader in the team’s locker room in Year 1 after Tom Brady.

2021 preview

What is his projected role? Ever since moving from cornerback to safety midway through the 2012 season, McCourty has served as the Patriots’ starting free safety. This usage is not expected to change in 2021. The 33-year-old will continue play the deep role in single high looks, be a part of two-deep schemes, and also move closer to the line of scrimmage in certain situations and coverage packages. No matter how he is used, though, he will hardly ever leave the field and should be expected to be among the team leaders in playing time yet again.

What is his special teams value? While McCourty was a core special teamer early on his career, and also has 48 kickoff returns for a combined 982 yards and a touchdown on his résumé, his usage changed over the last few seasons. Nowadays, the veteran is more of a role player. He was almost exclusively used on the Patriots’ field goal and extra point blocking units in 2020, and not much is expected to change heading into his 12th season in the league.

Does he have positional versatility? McCourty may be listed as a safety on New England’s roster, but, as already pointed out above, his role extends far beyond the classic responsibilities of the position. In 2020, for example, he saw most of his action aligning deep (591 snaps), but also regularly played in the box (273) as well as either in the slot (68) or split out as a perimeter cornerback (18). In general, McCourty has proven himself a jack-of-all-trades in the Patriots’ secondary.

What is his salary cap situation? While McCourty’s deal runs through the 2024 season for salary cap purposes, he is actually entering a contract year: his pact will void next March. As for his impact on the 2021 Patriots, he is hitting their books with a salary cap number of $11.15 million that includes $6.15 million in full guarantees. New England could create significant cap savings by either releasing or trading him, but such a move is not expected to happen.

What is his roster outlook? McCourty is a lock to be on the Patriots’ 53-man roster this year given his importance to the team both on and off the field. The biggest questions heading into 2021 are whether or not he will be able to perform at his usual high level even at age 34, and if New England opts to use him in a slightly different role to help Kyle Dugger get up to speed as his presumptive heir. Realistically, however, McCourty’s 12th. year with the Patriots will look a lot like his first 11: he will see extensive action and play a valuable role as a starting safety and team captain.