With Patriots training camp set to open on July 26, CBSBostonSports.com will break down the outlook for every position on the roster. Today’s breakdown is on the safeties.
Major Players: Patrick Chung, Tavon Wilson, Sterling Moore, Steve Gregory, James Ihedigbo
On The Bubble: Sergio Brown, Josh Barrett, Ross Ventrone
The Patriots secondary as a whole in 2011 was not pretty. They surrendered ridiculous amounts of yards on a weekly basis and made even the most abysmal passers look like John Elway (remember when Vince Young threw for 400 yards?).
But when it mattered, the secondary usually came up with the stop it needed – one game in February excluded. And they did it with a rag-tag, Band-Aid crew at safety that was hampered by an injury to Patrick Chung and the preseason releases of James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather.
This year, there is some reason for hope from the safety crop on the New England roster. If Chung can stay healthy – a big IF — he should be able to make that final step into becoming a Pro Bowl defender. He hits hard and plays with the aggression of Rodney Harrison, but as always health remains his concern. He is the quarterback of the secondary, and having him on the field is key to the Patriots having a solid defensive backfield.
With Chung sidelined for eight games last season, the Patriots’ defensive backfield featured the likes of Devin McCourty moving to safety, and Raiders castoff Sterling Moore and wide receiver Julian Edelman roaming around – with both Moore and Edelman playing well above expectations. Moore was a pleasant surprise throughout the season, and his play in the postseason earned him a roster spot this year. If it wasn’t for Moore knocking the football out of Lee Evans’ hands in the endzone in the AFC Championship Game, the Patriots would have never had a chance to lose to the Giants a couple of weeks later.
However, if Edelman lines up on defense again this season, even given how well he delivered hits last season, it means the Patriots have been bitten with the injury bug once again.
To shore up their safety core, Belichick and Co. drafted Tavon Wilson out of Illinois in the second round. Wilson and Moore will likely split time alongside Chung, with the Patriots hoping Wilson can be groomed into a full-time player by season’s end. The rookie was more than dependable in college, starting 38 straight games for the Illini and finishing his senior season with 81 tackles, good for third on the team. He should provide some more youth, and hopefully health, to a safety crop that can use a boost.
To inject more veteran presence in the secondary, New England also signed seven-year vet Steve Gregory. Last season for the Chargers, Gregory totaled 67 tackles, and will vie for some time next to Chung as Wilson becomes acquainted with the NFL game.
James Ihedigbo, who proved to be a serviceable backup in 2011, will also be back. The Northampton native and UMass Amherst alum filled holes when he was needed, but also had a knack for getting dinged up nearly every game. With a smaller role this season – should Wilson be able to take more snaps – Ihedigbo may be able to stay healthy for longer stretches of time.
Another fun storyline to follow this season will be how many times Ross Ventrone will be cut, re-signed to the practice squad and signed to the active roster. It was a cycle Ventrone knew all too well last season, finishing the season with 21 transactions to his name. While his on-field contributions will be on special teams, keeping track of all his roster moves will be a fun little game fans can play at home.
It’s been written here before that the success of the Patriots secondary will rely heavily on Devin McCourty this season, which is true for the safeties as well. An improved McCourty will only help Chung and Moore (and even the rookie Wilson) as they look to improve on their 2011 play.
With a patchwork secondary in 2011, the Patriots made it all the way to the final game of the season. Any kind of improvement will help their chances greatly at winning it all this time around.