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Replacing Devin McCourty will take a ‘collective effort’ from the Patriots defense, assistant coaches say

The long-time safety announced his retirement earlier this offseason.

New England Patriots v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The New England Patriots’ defense has remained largely intact through the offseason, with one major exception. Long-time starting safety and multi-year team captain Devin McCourty announced his retirement in March.

McCourty has been a key part of their defensive fabric ever since joining the Patriots as a first-round draft pick in 2010. Over the next 13 seasons, he helped the organization win three Super Bowls and appeared in a combined 229 regular season and playoff games — missing only five games along the way and hardly ever leaving the field.

Replacing a player of this caliber will be a tall task, something the Patriots’ coaching staff is well aware of. Speaking to reporters at Gillette Stadium on Tuesday, several assistants therefore claimed that it would take more than one player to fill McCourty’s shoes.

“No one can replace Devin. We just got to see what happens, but we’ve been through stuff like this before with [Dont’a] Hightower, even Jerod [Mayo]. Those were easier shoes to fill,” said linebackers coach Steve Belichick, taking a playful jab at his fellow assistant coach. “Those guys, they don’t play forever. So, something’s got to happen. ...

“It’s not like we’re just going to play with 10 guys out there and no one’s going to play for Dev. It will be a collective effort, and we’ll see how the other guys try and take some of the responsibilities. So, we’ll see how it goes.”

For Brian Belichick, who served as McCourty’s position coach the last three seasons, the focus lies not on who isn’t in the room, but who is.

“Between [Adrian] Phillips, [Joshuah] Bledsoe, [Kyle] Dugger, [Jabrill] Peppers, all those guys, it’s an exiting group to coach,” the younger of the Belichick brothers said. “I’m not really worried about trying to replace anyone, or even how Devin played last year, or whatever his role was last year. I’m just trying to look at the guys we have, and we’re just trying to put the best team out there this year that we can.”

The four players mentioned by Belichick will all take a part in that process. The same might also be true for other defensive backs, with Jalen Mills a leading candidate among them.

The veteran defender restructured his contract this offseason, and in turn might be getting more safety responsibilities; he played as an outside cornerback almost exclusively since first arriving in New England in 2021. Steve Belichick acknowledged Mills’ positional flexibility on Tuesday, but did not hesitate to stress the competition in the secondary.

“It’s really an open competition,” he said. “So, if he’s the best guy in that role, then I’ll expect him to be out there doing that. But there’s a lot of other guys who are in competition for that as well as all the other spots on defense.”

Jerod Mayo, however, believes that parts of McCourty’s former job might also go the linebacker group. His role as the defensive on-field signal caller in particular — wearing the prominent green dot signaling the communication device in his helmet — might move up one level.

The Patriots traditionally had off-ball linebackers call the defense, with the aforementioned Mayo and Hightower two players serving in that capacity. After Hightower’s opt-out during the Covid-19 season in 2020, however, the responsibility first went to Ja’Whaun Bentley and later McCourty, who has held it ever since.

Now, Bentley or fellow linebacker Jahlani Tavai might again be in the spotlight.

“This is the time where you have to see who can really do it without Devin on the field,” said Mayo. “This happens every year: you lose people. I think we have some safeties that can do it. I also think at the second level you can do it. You can talk to the front, and you can also talk to the backend. Sometimes when you’re at the backend you really can’t talk to the front. And that’s why, even though Devin made a lot of calls, the linebackers made a lot of calls up front.”

Regardless of how they plan to split up what McCourty brought to the defense over the last decade-plus, it is obvious the Patriots’ plan is not to have a single player take over. That speaks for the quality of safety he was, but also for the depth New England has in its secondary: with plenty of versatile options under contract, they can take this approach.