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Patriots 2023 offseason preview: Safety group might see significant turnover in the coming weeks

Our position-by-position offseason analysis continues at safety.

Cincinnati Bengals v New England Patriots Photo by Winslow Townson/Getty Images

Two teams are left standing in the NFL playoffs, but the New England Patriots are not among them. Finishing the regular season with an 8-9 record, they failed to qualify for the tournament and are already on to the offseason.

It projects to be an interesting one for the team. On the one hand, it is coming off a disappointing year that saw especially the offense fall short of its expectations — a fact that has already led to some changes on the coaching staff. On the other hand, however, the Patriots are among the league leaders in offseason resources and already have plenty of young building-block-type players under contract.

With all that in mind, let’s break down where the Patriots stand at this point in time by looking at each position individually. Today, we continue things at safety.

Quarterback | Running back | Wide receiver | Tight end | Offensive tackle | Interior offensive line | Interior defensive line | Defensive edge | Off-the-ball linebacker | Cornerback | Safety | Special teams

Final 2022 depth chart

Devin McCourty: The most experienced member of the Patriots defense, McCourty had another high-quality season as the unit’s leader on and off the field. The 35-year-old appeared in all 17 games, led the club with 1,098 defensive snaps (97.2%) and registered a team-high five takeaways: he had four interceptions as well as one fumble recovery. Add the fact that he was again voted a team captain and it is not hard to see why he had a substantial hand in New England’s defensive success in 2022.

Kyle Dugger: Coming off two intriguing seasons, the former second-round draft pick took another leap in 2022 and now finds himself as one of the NFL’s premier playmakers on the defensive side of the ball. Playing in 15 games, Dugger had four takeaways: he intercepted three passes, including two that were returned for a touchdown; he also ran back his lone fumble recovery for a score. Additionally, he forced a fumble and had a sack on top of his 78 total tackles. Dugger is quickly developing into a Pro Bowl-caliber player.

Adrian Phillips: Phillips’ 2022 campaign was his most quiet since joining the Patriots in free agency in 2020, but that does not mean he no longer can be a quality player. He very much was just that in his 17 games. So, why did he not post any takeaways and only ended up playing 62.3 percent of defensive snaps (704)? Dugger’s emergence and the fact that he was needed more on special teams in light of Cody Davis’ season-ending injury are two prominent factors contributing to this development.

Jabrill Peppers: Even though he was recovering from a torn ACL at the time, the Patriots signed Peppers to a one-year contract in free agency. Over the next few months, he developed into a solid rotational piece at the safety position — finishing with 17 in-game appearances while playing 399 snaps on defense (35.3%) and 269 more on special teams (58.9%). He notched 60 tackles as the No. 4 safety on the roster, as well as one fumble recovery.

Brenden Schooler: Have the Patriots found their next Matthew Slater? It certainly looks possible based on how well undrafted rookie Brenden Schooler performed in 2022. He ranked second on the team in kicking game snaps with 330 (72.2%) and also registered a team-high 14 tackles. Additionally, he recovered a pair of fumbles and picked up a blocked punt. Schooler is a special teams star in the making.

Joshuah Bledsoe: The second-year man showed some promise in training camp, which led to the Patriots keeping him around on their 53-man roster throughout the season. However, after missing time due to a groin injury early in the year he served primarily as an emergency option. As such, he played just 29 defensive and special teams snaps over three games.

Brad Hawkins (PS): A late-training camp pickup, Hawkins spent the entire season on the Patriots’ practice squad. He was never elevated to the game-day roster, thus finishing the year without any in-game action outside of training camp.

Cody Davis (IR): Davis resumed his role as a core special teamer to open the season, but after playing 72 percent of snaps over the first six games suffered a season-ending knee injury in mid-October. Davis spent the remainder of the year on injured reserve, ending it with six kicking game tackles.

Position assessment

The first and most important question that needs answering is whether or not Devin McCourty will be back next season. His retirement would obviously be a massive loss for the Patriots, both on and off the field.

If he does not come back, the Patriots need to find someone who can play free safety. They will also need somebody to step up and be the quarterback of the defense: outside of his play, the way McCourty was able to communicate the defense to his teammates, and his high football IQ, were a big reason why the Patriots defense has been so good the last few years.

One thing that will help this group moving forward is the emergence of Kyle Dugger. He scored three touchdowns in 2022, and took a big leap forward with his play. He still has room for growth, but he is a big play waiting to happen on defense.

Jabrill Peppers also played well last year. He has his flaws, but brings an energy and physicality to the defense that not many guys have to offer. Joshuah Bledsoe looked great in camp, but needs to prove it on the field, while Adrian Phillips has been a solid player for the Patriots since joining the team in 2020.

Offseason preview

Even if McCourty decides to come back for one more year, the Patriots will need a guy that can step in and replace him at the free safety position when he’s gone. Maybe that guy can be Joshuah Bledsoe, but he does not appear to be ideally suited for that role.

New England might be better off going for a veteran, since McCourty departing — either this year or next — would also lead to a loss of leadership and experience. That said, a dynamic rookie could certainly help improve the athleticism of the defense and give the team some long-term stability.

Along those lines, they also need to make signing Kyle Dugger to an extension a top priority. Bringing Peppers back should be one as well; together with Phillips and a potential rookie addition those two would give the team a solid core to build around, even though the group will never be quite the same in an eventual post-McCourty world.

With that said, here is what the Patriots’ safety group currently looks like:

  • Kyle Dugger: $3.65 million salary cap hit | Signed through 2023
  • Adrian Phillips: $4.54 million salary cap hit | Signed through 2024
  • Brenden Schooler: $875,000 salary cap hit | Signed through 2024
  • Joshuah Bledsoe: $990,087 salary cap hit | Signed through 2024
  • Brad Hawkins: $750,000 million salary cap hit | Signed through 2023

The group also has a pair of free agents:

  • Cody Davis: Unrestricted free agent
  • Jabrill Peppers: Unrestricted free agent

Additionally, one player will see his contract toll at the start of the new league year:

  • Devin McCourty

Level of concern: High