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Countdown to Camp: Safeties

07.18.13 at 5:42 pm ET
By
Devin McCourty

Devin McCourty

As training camp approaches, we’ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2013 Patriots. We started with a look at the special teamers/specialists, and broken down the linebackers. Now, it’s the safeties:

Depth chart: Devin McCourty, Adrian Wilson, Steve Gregory, Nate Ebner, Duron Harmon, Tavon Wilson, Kanorris Davis.

Overview: This group of safeties — really, the secondary as a whole — improved as the year continued, moving into a personnel combo late in the season that saw a McCourty-Gregory duo on the back end. Part of the improvement was due to the acquisition of cornerback Aqib Talib, which allowed the Patriots to move McCourty to safety and create a domino effect throughout the rest of the defensive backfield and allowed the team to maximize the strengths of the rest of the players. The acquisition of Adrian Wilson (and the murky legal future of cornerback Alfonzo Dennard) will create some changes in 2013 for the safeties, but at this point, it’s a versatile, competitive group that has good depth.

Three Things We Know:

1. Versatility remains paramount. It’s not just an ability to play both safety spots, but throughout the secondary: McCourty has played both safety and corner in the NFL, while Gregory played both safety spots last season and has collegiate experience as a corner. Tavon Wilson played both corner and safety in college, and Adrian Wilson plays more like a linebacker than safety. All of that mixing and matching will likely come into play this year if the Patriots are forced to go without Dennard for a stretch (or if the team decides to let him go altogether). For what it’s worth, Gregory appeared more comfortable at the free safety spot last season, and if the Patriots were forced to shuffle McCourty back to corner to account for the loss of Dennard, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a combo on Gregory (free) and Adrian Wilson (strong) at the safety spots, and Talib, McCourty and Kyle Arrington (slot) at corner.

2. Adrian Wilson might be the biggest defensive back in recent Patriots history. It’s difficult to explain how this translates, but people will be amazed when camp rolls around. He’s certainly one of the largest defensive backs in a New England uniform over the last dozen years. (In our memory, the only one who comes close to the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Wilson is the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Tebucky Jones.) While we have yet to see him in full pads running with tight ends and running backs, this spring, he certainly appears to be the type who can bring more of a thump to the safety position than New England has seen in recent years.

3. This group has a knack for being around the football. As a whole, the safeties showed a real skill when it came to being around the ball in 2012. Tavon Wilson had four picks in his first 10 games as a pro to go along with six passes defensed and a pair of fumble recoveries. Gregory had three interceptions, five passes defensed, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries (including the gift that keeps on giving, the buttfumble). Meanwhile, McCourty had a team-high five picks (three at safety, including two late in the season where he baited the opposing quarterback into a throw down the middle of the field.) In addition, McCourty’s 13 passes defensed were also tops on the team, and he added three fumble recoveries.

Three Questions

1. Now that Dennard faces a murky future, what should the Patriots do with McCourty? McCourty’s versatility allows him to play both corner and safety, and when he’s along the back line, that means the corner combo includes Talib on one side, Dennard on the other and Kyle Arrington in the slot. But if Dennard is out for an extended stretch, the Patriots could move McCourty back to corner to try and cover for the loss of Dennard.

2. What’s a reasonable level of expectation for Harmon? Everyone scratched their heads when the Patriots took Harmon in the third round this spring (several draft experts had him going as a late-round pickup, or even undrafted), but the Rutgers product was All-Big East as a junior and senior. He started 13 games last year, and had one interception, seven pass break-ups, and 50 tackles. Right now, he’ll be asked to provide depth, as well as some special teams value. But as we saw last year — when Ebner and Tavon Wilson were pressed into service early in the season — the Patriots aren’t shy about throwing young safeties into the fire early in their careers. Harmon remains one of the prospects worth watching this summer.

3. Can Tavon Wilson make the leap in his second season? As we discussed Wednesday with Dont’a Hightower, sometimes the biggest transition for a player isn’t necessarily going from college to rookie, but rookie to second year in the league. The same question pertains to Wilson, who was the best rookie safety on the roster last year. The 6-foot, 210-pounder out of Illinois started strong, with four interceptions in his first 10 games, as well as a 10-tackle performance in an October win over Denver, which certainly surpassed the expectations of many who initially called him a second-round reach. However, the acquisition of Talib affected his playing time maybe more than anyone else — the trade for Talib meant the Patriots moved McCourty from corner to safety, and left Wilson mostly on the sidelines. (Wilson was still part of an occasional rotation in sub packages, but his overall snap count drastically decreased. According to Pro Football Focus, in six of the first eight games, he played at least 41 defensive snaps. Over the second half of the season, he reached 30 defensive snaps just once.)

By the numbers: According to PFF, McCourty allowed just five receptions at safety in 2012, tied for the fifth-lowest total among all safeties. (Per PFF, McCourty also finished with 1,251 defensive snaps last season, the most on the team.)

Key new player: Wilson. The former Arizona defensive back — really, more of a linebacker than safety — brings an interesting dynamic to Foxboro. While there’s some question as to how much he has left in the tank, the 33-year-old has already been praised for his leadership skills, and could help mature a group of relatively young defensive backs. In the past, we have written about whether or not it’s fair to draw a line between Rodney Harrison (who arrived 10 years ago) and Wilson. At this point, it’s clear there are plenty of similarities — both are in-the-box safeties who arrived in Foxboro on the wrong side of 30, with a rep for big hits and solid locker room character but in desperate need of a professional jumpstart at a key point in their careers. Only time will tell if Wilson will follow the same successful career path as Harrison.

The skinny: While there’s some question as to how to best utilize McCourty (particularly if Dennard is out for any length of time), it appears that this safety group is a solid lot — if you include McCourty, this is arguably the deepest spots on defense for New England. It will be interesting to see how the Patriots build on the success they had down the stretch in 2012, as well as how they incorporate Adrian Wilson into the mix going forward.

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