With the offseason workout program in the rear-view mirror, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2022.”
The team currently has 87 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in early 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 men fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots build on their 10-7 record.
Today, the series continues with veteran safety Devin McCourty
Name: Devin McCourty
Position: Safety/Defensive back
Jersey number: 32
Opening day age: 35
Size: 5-foot-11, 195 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2022 (2023 UFA)
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 9.7 percent was the lowest of his career: he was used on just 45 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.
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 34-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 defensive playing time yet again. Additionally, he will again serve as the unit’s on-field signal caller — a role he has held ever since the 2020 season.
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 2021, for example, he saw most of his action aligning deep as a classic free safety (780 snaps), but also regularly played in the box (203) as well as either in the slot (70), split out as a perimeter cornerback (14) or along the defensive line (8). McCourty is a true dot-it-all player within the Patriots secondary.
What is his special teams value? McCourty was a core special teamer early on his career, and also returned 48 kickoffs for a combined 982 yards and a touchdown, but his usage changed over the last few seasons: his kicking game snaps decreased each of the last four seasons, to a point where he played only 9.7 percent of snaps in 2021. The veteran is therefore primarily a role player at this point in his career, and was used primarily on the field goal/extra point blocking unit (39 snaps) with just a handful coming on the kickoff return (3), punt return (2) and kickoff coverage squads (1).
What is his salary cap situation? Before his previous deal was set to void in mid-March, the Patriots’ re-signed McCourty to a one-year, $9 million extension. He received a $1.25 million salary in combination with a $1 million roster bonus and a $6.75 million signing bonus spread out over a five-year span (with the last four of those years set to void on the first day of the NFL’s 2023 league year). McCourty will earn $9 million in cash through this deal, but his salary cap impact is significantly smaller in 2022: he will count only $5.75 million against New England’s books this season — the 12th highest such number on the team.
How safe is his roster spot? McCourty is a lock to be on the Patriots’ 53-man roster this year, not just due to his new contract. He also is one of the team’s most important players both on and off the field, and still one of the NFL’s better safeties even at this point in his career. Of course, that does not mean there are no questions heading into 2022. Will he still be able to perform at his usual high level even at age 35? Will New England opt to use him in a slightly different role? And will this season be the last of his legendary career? Regardless, McCourty’s status as the leader of the Patriots defense is not in question.
One-sentence projection: McCourty’s 13th year as a pro will look a lot like his first 12, and see him receive extensive action and play a valuable role as a starting defensive back and team captain.