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Patriots position-by-position breakdown: Safety

02.07.14 at 11:22 pm ET
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Devin McCourty was a key defensive piece of the puzzle for the Patriots in 2013. (AP)

Devin McCourty was a key defensive piece of the puzzle for the Patriots in 2013. (AP)

With the Patriots done for the season, we’€™ve got an end-of-the-year position-by-position breakdown of where the roster stands. We’€™ve focused on special teams, wide receivers, tight ends, running backs, quarterbacks, offensive line, defensive line, linebackers and cornerbacks. Now, we finish with the safeties.

Roster (stats taken from coaches film review): Devin McCourty (75 tackles, 1 interception, 8 passes defensed, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery), Steve Gregory (90 tackles, 1 sack, 2 quarterback hits, 2 passes defensed), Duron Harmon (30 tackles, 2 interceptions, 4 passes defensed), Tavon Wilson (2 tackles, 1 interception, 1 touchdown, 1 pass defensed), Kanorris Davis, Nate Ebner.

Overview: While so much of the 2013 New England defense was defined by injury, the safety spot was the one area that stayed relatively healthy over the course of the season. Of course, Gregory missed two games because of a finger injury and McCourty missed one because of a concussion scare at the of the season, but when stacked up against the rest of the defense, the safeties look like iron men when compared to the rest of the group. (According to Pro Football Focus, McCourty was third on the team in defensive snaps with 1,039, while Gregory was sixth with 849.) They are not classic thumpers that many of their critics hope they would be — you can’€™t help but wonder what sort of role the super-sized Adrian Wilson might have had on the 2013 team — but for what they are asked to do in the context of the New England defense, they do it well.

While so many of the Patriots elite defenders went down over the course of the season, it was players like McCourty who stepped them games up and helped provide leadership and consistency, helping the New England defense through some of the roughest times. For his efforts, McCourty was named an All-Pro, and after four years, has the unique honor of reaching All-Pro status at two different positions. McCourty has been the leader of not just the safeties, but the secondary. Ultimately, his off-the-charts football IQ, skill set and attitude all represent a great asset for the Patriots, and it wouldn’€™t be a surprise to see the team sign him to an extension before his deal was up at the end of the 2014 season.

Gregory had a mixed bag — there were a handful of bad angles that continue to stand out on film, a baffling sight given the fact that he’€™s one of the more cerebral players to put on a New England uniform over the last 5-10 seasons. But given the benefit of hindsight, there was more good than bad. Rookie Harmon had his occasional struggles, but he had matured to a point late in the season where he had moved ahead of Wilson and Ebner on the depth chart. And while they’€™re more special teamers than safeties, it’€™s worth mentioning that both Ebner and Davis appeared to throw their bodies around with a near-reckless abandon when working on kick and punt coverage, with Ebner continuing to have a good nose for the ball.

Ultimately, though, McCourty leads this group. For the last few seasons, the assumption was that as Vince Wilfork continued to get older, there would be a time when Jerod Mayo would assume the role of de factor leader on that side of the ball — the heart of the New England defense. If we learned anything about the Patriots’€™ defense in 2013, it’€™s that McCourty has the potential to have just a big a role leading the group going forward into the future.

Best moment: From an aesthetic standpoint, it’€™s hard not to single out the tipped ball play deftly executed by McCourty and cornerback Marquice Cole along the sidelines in a home win over the Dolphins. On a deep ball from Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill intended for wide receiver Mike Wallace, McCourty made a great read on the play — while he was falling out of bounds, he broke up the pass, tipping the ball to Cole, who managed to stay inbounds and come away with the pick.

Worst moment: Much of it came back to team defense, but the loss against the Broncos in the AFC title game represented a low-water mark for not just the safeties, but the defense as a group.

By the numbers: 80 percent. McCourty, who is going into the final year of his rookie deal, earned a $3 million contract bump for the final year because he played 80 percent of his snaps through each of his first four seasons.

Money quote: ‘€œDevin is a great player. ‘€¦ I see that every day in practice. You really have to look Devin off. He’€™s really smart — he sees combinations, and sometimes you try to look him off and he knows you’€™re trying to look him off so he doesn’€™t take it. There are other times he gets great jumps on the ball. The longer he’€™s been at safety, the better he’€™s done. He’€™s really been a consistent player for our team. He knocks balls away, covers guys in man coverage and then has that range in the deep part of the field where he truly plays like a safety.’€ — quarterback Tom Brady on McCourty, Oct. 30

Read More: Adrian Wilson, Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon, Kanorris Davis
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