The New England Patriots will have a massive hole to fill on the defensive side of the ball this offseason. Long-time starting safety and team captain Devin McCourty, after all, announced his retirement from the NFL on Friday.
Having spent 13 seasons with the Patriots and winning three Super Bowls, McCourty was integral to the fabric of the team as both a captain and as one of the league’s best deep safeties. Now, New England will have to find a way to replace him — a job that will be immensely difficult given what the 35-year-old meant to the franchise both on as well as off the field.
So, what will Bill Belichick and company do? That we do not know yet, but they have various avenues they could explore.
Before taking a look at those, a quick word on McCourty’s role in the New England defense. It was a rather versatile one: he moved up into the box, played in the slot, and even on the perimeter from time to time. His main responsibility, however, was guarding the deep parts of the field in the Patriots’ Cover 1 scheme.
Not every player has the skillset to play that role; McCourty offered a rare combination of range, football IQ and communication skills in order to play it at a high level fore more than a decade. Below, we will take a look at players that we think can play a similar role, while also acknowledging the fact that the Patriots might make some schematic adjustments as well with their long-time defensive leader no longer in the lineup.
With all that said, let’s get started by looking at the in-house options.
These are players either currently under contract with the Patriots or on their list of free agents this year. As you will see, not all of them are perfectly suited to fill McCourty’s shoes — or even classic safeties to begin with — but for completeness’ sake we will touch on every one of them briefly.
Kyle Dugger: The Patriots’ top safety with McCourty headed into retirement, Dugger is as versatile as any player in the New England secondary. He is better suited as a box safety than a deep-fielder like McCourty, but if his growth over the last three years is any indication he would likely also play that role at a high level.
Jonathan Jones (UFA): Jones started his career in the slot before moving to a starting position as a perimeter cornerback in 2022. There is no guarantee he will be back in free agency, but if so moving him again would make sense: his speed and experience, plus the fact that he was used as a safety before, makes him an intriguing option.
Adrian Phillips: Phillips is similar to Dugger in that he spends most of his time closer to the box than deep. The difference is that he is not quite as impressive athletically, and therefore likely not a realistic candidate to move into the free safety spot on a regular or even semi-regular basis.
Jabrill Peppers (UFA): Peppers is another box safety/linebacker hybrid like Phillips and, to some degree, Dugger. A free-agent-to-be, his return is not a given but he has earned himself a new contract with his solid play in 2022. Keeping the 27-year-old would make sense, if only to help improve stability in Year 1 after McCourty.
Myles Bryant (RFA): When Jonathan Jones moved to the outside in 2022, Bryant took over as New England’s slot cornerback. He had some moments, but also his fair shares of inconsistency. That said, bringing him back as a restricted free agent would make sense given that he too has experience playing a deep safety role.
Joshuah Bledsoe: Bledsoe was moved all over the secondary in the little action he has seen through his first two years in the league. Still, he might be a dark-horse candidate to take on a bigger role moving forward.
Jalen Mills: Coming off a challenging season, Mills’ future is somewhat uncertain. That said, he combines experience with plenty of versatility: his last season in Philadelphia before joining the Patriots saw him move all over the defense, including to the deep safety spot. New England has used him exclusively at cornerback over the last two seasons, though.
Brad Hawkins: An undrafted free agent in 2022 who arrived via Atlanta, Hawkins spent his rookie season on New England’s practice squad. He might show some growth in Year 2 but at this point in time should not be counted on to take a bigger role.
Free agency options
These are players who are set to enter the open market next week and that would make sense in a deep-safety role similar to the one McCourty played. That does not mean they would be able to replace him one-for-one, but they do offer some potential from a strict on-field perspective.
Jessie Bates III (UFA): A former second-round draft pick by the Cincinnati Bengals, the 26-year-old is the top safety available in this year’s free agency. Bates combines a lot of things the Patriots appreciate: smarts, versatility, playmaking skills, leadership and durability. He would not come cheap, but might be worth it to ensure New England fields another high-quality safety for the next few years.
Vonn Bell (UFA): Bates’ running mate in the Cincinnati secondary, Bell was moved around the formation a bit more by the Bengals than his teammate. Nonetheless, the 28-year-old is also a capable player regardless of role and should be comfortable playing the deep safety spot in single-high structures like the ones New England likes to run.
Terrell Edmunds (UFA): The Patriots might have an eye on his brother this free agency period, but Terrell Edmunds also would make some sense. While more in the mold of a Kyle Dugger than a Devin McCourty, he too has experience playing deep.
C.J. Gardner-Johnson (UFA): Philadelphia acquired Gardner-Johnson via trade last year, and he played a big role in the team reaching the Super Bowl in 2022. There was some speculation he might receive the franchise tag, but that did not happen — allowing a very versatile defender with plenty of free safety experience to hit the market.
Tashaun Gipson Sr. (UFA): Turning 33 in August, Gipson would be more of a stop-gap option than others on this list. However, his experience should allow him to slide right into a prominent role and hold down the fort at deep safety for at least one year.
Duron Harmon (UFA): Even though he is already 32 and not on the same level as other free agent safeties, the Patriots bringing back “The Closer” would not be a surprise. Harmon knows the system and has shown he can play a McCourty-esque role, after all. Like Gipson, he would be more of a temporary fix but one that would likely make for a comparatively seamless transition into a post-McCourty era.
Julian Love (UFA): Regardless of his experience having played under Patriots assistant Joe Judge with the New York Giants, Love looks like a prototypical New England defensive back. He has played all over the formation, and is no stranger to dropping into deep zones or guarding the field in single-high formations.
Kareem Jackson (UFA): Jackson is only one year younger than McCourty, but like the new retiree is still a capable player who might have value to a team. Last year, he was voted a captain with the Denver Broncos, played a team-high 99.6 percent of defensive snaps, and had a big hand in the team’s defensive success. He’d be another solid one-year stop-gap.
Jordan Poyer (UFA): New England has never been afraid to steal from a division rival, and Poyer would fit that mold perfectly. The long-time Buffalo Bills safety is expected to leave in free agency, and the Patriots seem like a potential destination: while slightly on the older side at 32, he can be a difference-maker and veteran leader.
Juan Thornhill (UFA): Replacing a three-time world champion with a two-time world champion? A second-round draft pick in 2019, Thornhill developed into a serviceable if a bit inconsistent deep safety in Kansas City. He does have some intriguing qualities, though, and might benefit from a change of scenery — all while likely being cheap compared to other safeties on this list.
Of course, the free agency safety class does not end with these 10 names. However, they appear to be best suited to take on a role similarly as prominent as the one McCourty would have held for the 2023 Patriots.
These are players who will be available in this year’s draft. While there are dozens of safeties available, our focus is on the higher-rated prospects. The Patriots could take a late-round flier on somebody and see him pan out, but it would also make sense for them to make an earlier investment in a developmental option capable of playing the deep centerfield role.
Jordan Battle (Alabama): The Crimson Tide safety has played all over Nick Saban’s defense, and teams might view him as better suited to play a box role. However, he can line up in a free safety spot as well and has successfully maneuvered in the deep part of the field.
Sydney Brown (Illinois): What Brown may lack in size — he stands at just under 5-foot-10 and 211 pounds — he makes up for with an impressive athletic skillset. He also offers a versatile skillset and high football IQ.
Brandon Hill (Pitt): Projected as a mid-round pick, Hill neither has the most imposing frame nor the best tackling skills. However, his range and play diagnosis skills might allow him to develop into a McCourty-like player in a scheme such as New England’s.
Brandon Joseph (Notre Dame): Joseph did not test particularly well at the Scouting Combine, but he has the tools to develop into a starter-level deep safety such as McCourty. His instincts are top-notch and he has a knack for finding the football.
Christopher Smith (Georgia): Smith combines a few things the Patriots value: football intelligence, positional flexibility, and an SEC background. All that combined might be worth a Day 2 investment.
As with the free agents, there are several more safeties available through the draft. However, they are either too far the projected board to be considered or different player types such as Alabama’s Brian Branch and Texas A&M’s Antonio Johnson; both are more box safeties than deep-fielders like McCourty.