The biggest move to impact the New England Patriots safety position this offseason has already happened: after 13 years and three championships, Devin McCourty announced his retirement last week. Despite being 35, his departure is a blow to the team and its secondary.
McCourty, after all, was the unit’s undisputed leader both on and off the field. The long-time team captain allowed the Patriots to play their trademark one-deep coverage shells; he was still a playmaker in the backend; he was responsibly for calling the defense on the field. Now, the team has to replace all of those contributions.
How will it do that? That’s a big question, but plenty of work will fall onto the remaining safeties on the team:
- Kyle Dugger: 26 | Signed through 2023
- Adrian Phillips: 30 | Signed through 2024
- Joshuah Bledsoe: 24 | Signed through 2024
- Brenden Schooler: 25 | Signed through 2024
- Brad Hawkins: 24 | Signed through 2023
What can be seen when looking at this list is that the Patriots lack a real deep safety in the mold of McCourty. Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips are more box safeties than centerfielders, whereas the others are unproven or not suited to take over that prominent a role in the lineup.
Of course, the Patriots also have some free agents to take care of. However, neither of them is truly capable of playing a McCourty-like role either.
This, in turn, leaves the Patriots with only three other options: explore a trade, draft a rookie or look at the free agent market. Given the importance the free safety position holds, especially in New England’s man-based defense, the latter might be the way to go to find a Day 1 contributor
So, who are the available options that make sense?
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.
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 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.
Unless they trust some of the second-tier guys to step up, the Patriots appear to have two options: pay top dollar to bring Jessie Bates aboard, or pay slightly less for somebody like Jordan Poyer or Duron Harmon to serve as a stand-in until a new starting option — possibly coming through the draft — emerges.
Obviously, though, New England works in mysterious ways. The team might also just re-sign cornerback Jonathan Jones with the intention of making him the new starting deep safety.