Coming off a 2021 season that saw them return to the playoffs but eventually come up short on wild card weekend, the New England Patriots have a long list of to-dos this offseason. One of its items is bringing back players who are scheduled to enter free agency.
There are quite a few of them: all in all, 18 players that were with New England last year are in need of a new contract. Among them is safety Devin McCourty, who is an unrestricted free agent and will therefore hit the open market on March 16.
Name: Devin McCourty
Jersey number: 32
Opening day age: 35
Size: 5-foot-11, 195 pounds
Contract status: Unrestricted free agent (Contract voids on March 16)
What is his experience? One year after his twin brother, fellow defensive back Jason McCourty, entered the NFL, Devin did the same. The Rutgers product was selected in the first-round in 2010, with the Patriots picking 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, he 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 has been a fixture as the Patriots’ primary deep safety. Playing this role he helped the team win three Super Bowls while appearing in 188 regular season games and 24 playoff contests — missing just five combined games over the course of his illustrious career. A three-time All-Pro selection and two-time Pro Bowler, McCourty has been the heart and soul of the Patriots’ secondary for over a decade now, and one of the NFL’s best and most consistent safeties year-in and year-out.
What did his 2021 season look like? Coming off his first ever losing season at the professional or semi-professional level — neither McCourty’s teams at Rutgers nor at New England ever ended a single season below .500 before 2020 — the veteran safety was set to fill a familiar role in 2021. He was voted a team captain once again, and served as the leader of New England’s defensive backfield. As such, he helped the Patriots defense bounce back from a disappointing season to finish among the best in the NFL.
In a way, the 2021 season as a whole was business as usual for McCourty. He was again among the league’s better players the position due to his elite combination of athleticism and experience, as well as his tremendous communication skills and his A-level anticipation and vision. His durability was also top-notch: starting all 17 regular season games as well as New England’s playoff loss in Buffalo, McCourty hardly ever left the field and finished as his team’s leader in defensive playing time for the third year in a row.
All in all, McCourty was on the field for 1,075 of a possible 1,135 defensive snaps for a playing time share of 94.7 percent. He also continued to play at a high level regardless of the role he was used in: as he did in years past, McCourty regularly moved between deep centerfielder, box and two-deep safety; he also aligned as a slot cornerback and even on the perimeter from time to time. In this versatile role the former first-round draft pick also made some of the unit’s biggest plays.
Guarding the deep parts of the field as a rangy ball-hawk, he allowed opposing quarterbacks to go just 12-for-29 for 206 yards without any touchdowns. McCourty also intercepted three of the passes thrown his way, while breaking up seven others. He furthermore notched 68 tackles (interestingly enough the same number he had in 2020). Of those tackles, 36 came in the running game and 32 versus the pass — 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 was used in the kicking game as well. That said, his special teams playing time share of 9.9 percent was the lowest of his career: he was used on just 46 of 464 snaps in the game’s third phase. Playing primarily on the field goal and extra point blocking units, he did not register any statistics; McCourty was also occasionally — as in: for seven snaps on the year — employed on the kickoff coverage and kickoff return teams as well as the punt coverage unit.
Not all went well for the veteran defender in 2021, however. A bad angle in Week 5 versus the Houston Texans led to a long touchdown, for example, while his overaggressiveness allowed the Indianapolis Colts to score the game-clinching TD in Week 15. Despite those hiccups, however, McCourty’s season as a whole was again a very strong one: even at age 34 and with the Patriots having moved on from star boundary cornerback Stephon Gilmore, he held down the fort in the backend far more often than not.
Free agency preview
What is his contract history? McCourty joined the Patriots on a five-year rookie deal — the rookie wage scale had not been introduced in 2010 — worth $10 million. When the contract expired, he entered free agency but ultimately returned to a New England with a new five-year, $47.5 million pact in hand. Before heading into the final season of that deal, he signed a two-year, $23 million extension that also had three void years attached to it. In total, Over the Cap estimates McCourty’s career earnings at $83.6 million.
Which teams might be in the running? McCourty remains one of the best safeties in football, which means that he might find a lively free agency market even at age 34. Among the teams in need of help at the position are the Baltimore Ravens, Detroit Lions, New Orleans Saints, New York Jets, Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Commanders. The Patriots are in the market for a safety as well, especially if McCourty leaves.
Why should he be expected back? As noted above, McCourty has been the heart and soul of the Patriots defensive backfield ever since he moved from cornerback to safety. He is a key communicator in the secondary, a tone-setter both on and off the field, and remains a high-quality player and consistent playmaker despite his 35th birthday being on the horizon. Add the fact that the team lacks a true deep-field defender behind him and re-signing McCourty should become a priority for New England.
Why should he be expected to leave? The Patriots are in a challenging financial situation at the moment, meaning that they might be forced to make some tough business decisions. Not bringing McCourty back, or not engaging in any bidding wars for his services, would be one of them. The team also might try to get younger at the position, and with both Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips signed for the foreseeable future might be willing to take the next step in this process in 2022.
What is his projected free agency outcome? McCourty has been a cornerstone of the Patriots defense for the last decade-plus, and it would take some time to get used to seeing him in a different uniform. That said, New England letting that happen appears to be unlikely: McCourty remains a massively important member of the team, and as such likely finds himself high up on the list of players to be retained. The question is how the club will manage to keep him in the fold.
His cap hit for the 2022 season if not re-signed might be a starting point. The three void years, after all, were added in 2020 to spread out McCourty’s signing bonus: if the deal is allowed to void at the start of the new league year, the entirety of that bonus would hit the books at $6.45 million — no matter if he is eventually re-signed or not. Naturally, that gives the Patriots some incentive to extend their long-time team captain before March 16.
Keeping his new cap number at around that $6.45 million would therefore be a preferable outcome from the team’s perspective. Whether or not that is realistic remains to be seen, but backloading a new deal would give New England some financial flexibility this season. McCourty signing a multi-year extension — maybe covering the three void years in his current deal — would therefore make some sense.
Will the Patriots re-sign Devin McCourty?
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