With star cornerback J.C. Jackson expected to generate a lively market in unrestricted free agency, the New England Patriots’ secondary might very well suffer a major departure this offseason. Replacing Jackson will be near-impossible — he is one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL — but the Patriots are trying to prepare their secondary for the potential loss.
After all, they were able to re-sign team captain Devin McCourty on Sunday to keep their safety group intact. With McCourty back in the fold on a reported one-year deal, the top three safeties from a season ago remain under contract heading into 2022 as well:
- Devin McCourty
- Adrian Phillips
- Kyle Dugger
- Joshuah Bledsoe*
- Myles Bryant*
- Cody Davis*
Devin McCourty, Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger form one of the better and most versatile safety trios in the league. All three are again expected to see considerable playing time in New England’s defensive backfield in 2022, filling starter-level roles for the unit.
The depth behind them, however, is a different story. Joshuah Bledsoe and Myles Bryant lack experience, with the former having yet to appear in an NFL game and the latter seeing more action at slot cornerback last season. Cody Davis, meanwhile, has been used almost exclusively on special teams since joining the organization in 2020.
The Patriots bolstering their safety group behind McCourty, Phillips and Dugger would therefore make sense this offseason. While the draft is the most likely way to go for the team, free agency also offers some names to watch.
Deon Bush (UFA): Bush spent his entire six-year career so far in Chicago, seeing most of his action on special teams. However, he also was given some opportunities on defense: in 2021, for example, he played one third of the Bears’ defensive snaps and registered a pair of interceptions.
Nate Ebner (UFA): The former Patriots special teams standout is already 33 and coming off a season-ending knee injury, so his outlook is uncertain. That said, his ex-team might have an interest in bringing him back: Ebner would be a lower-cost option in case New England opts to replace Cody Davis’ spot on the roster.
DeAndre Houston-Carson (UFA): A fractured forearm suffered in December ended what was the best season of Houston-Carson’s career up until that point. Seeing prominent action on special teams and, for the first time, defense as well, the 28-year-old delivered a solid performance for the Bears.
Jason McCourty (UFA): Another ex-Patriot who is set to enter the open market. McCourty moved from cornerback to safety after leaving New England in 2019, and would serve as an experienced and versatile depth option — if he decides to a) continue his career and b) reunite with his twin brother.
George Odum (UFA): One of the NFL’s best special teamers, Odum has been given plenty of defensive snaps in 2021 as well. While no starting-caliber player, the 28-year-old old could be a high-quality depth option with the future in mind: Odum might help replace kicking game legend Matthew Slater one day.
Jabrill Peppers (UFA): The former first-round draft pick spent the last two seasons in New York, playing under now-Patriots offensive assistant Joe Judge. Could Judge convince New England to bring him aboard? Possibly, because he has experience with Peppers and his upside is intriguing. The question is whether or not he would be willing to play more of a rotational role in the Patriots’ backfield rather than get a chance to start elsewhere.
M.J. Stewart (UFA): A former second-round draft pick who did not find success in Tampa, Stewart spent the last two seasons with the Cleveland Browns. Playing primarily on special teams and as a part-time free safety/slot cornerback hybrid, the 26-year-old saw action in 30 games during his time with the club.
Ultimately, re-signing Devin McCourty was the one major move the Patriots needed to make at the safety position. If they decide to add more bodies to the equation, they will likely be low-cost options like the ones listed above rather than big-name players such as Kansas City’s Tyrann Mathieu, Denver’s Kareem Jackson or Seattle’s Quandre Diggs.
New England has more pressing needs, so the investments at safety will likely be minimal outside of the reported one-year, $9 million deal signed by McCourty.