By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Thanks to Bill Belichick’s drafting, and some cunning free agent negotiations, the Patriots’ safety corps has been carried by Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung for nearly a decade.
Unfortunately, thanks to Belichick’s drafting, the Patriots really only have Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung to lead the charge at safety for the 2020 season, both of whom are getting a little long in the tooth. Both are still pretty darn good and able to lead New England’s final line of defense, especially McCourty, but it’s a position that needs some youth added to the mix.
That should put safety on Belichick’s to-do list at this year’s NFL Draft. Buckle up, Patriots fans.
McCourty was a home run pick for Belichick back in 2010, but he was drafted as a corner. Still, we’ll give that one to Bill. And Chung has worked out well in his two stints in New England, initially drafted with the pick the Patriots received from Kansas City for Matt Cassel and Mike Vrabel.
But Belichick’s other picks at safety? Toss those earmuffs on your children and cover their eyes.
In 2008, the Pats drafted Terrence Wheatley in the second round and Jonathan Wilhite in the fourth. After hitting on McCourty and Chung, Belichick drafted Virginia’s Ras-I Dowling in the second round in 2011, a player many pundits didn’t have being drafted at all. Over Dowling’s two injury-plagued seasons, everyone understood why. In 2012, it was Tavon Wilson in the second round. He started just four games over his four seasons in New England, relegated to a special teams specialist his final three seasons.
Duron Harmon was a solid third-round selection in 2013, but then Belichick lost it again by taking Jordan Richards in the second round in 2015. Richards was a late-round pick on most mocks, and he never did much of anything in the New England defense.
All of those misses — and early misses at that — have massively hurt New England’s depth and development at safety. (And this is leaving out cornerbacks Duke Dawson and Cyrus Jones, both of whom were second-round picks and both of whom were off the Patriots in record time.) It hasn’t hurt the team yet because McCourty and Chung are so solid, and when you mix in Stephon Gilmore, Jason Mccourty and J.C. Jackson leading the way at corner, the New England secondary still remains one of the best in the NFL for the 2020 season. And maybe we’ll see what Joejuan Williams, a second-round pick in 2019, can bring to the table after he barely played last season.
But father time will soon catch up to McCourty, and Chung’s playing style means he’s always a hit away from missing a chunk of time. The Patriots don’t need a player who will have an immediate impact at safety, but they’re going to need a few hard-hitting, smart defensive quarterbacks for the future.
Belichick drafting safeties is a wild ride, one that usually ends up in a ditch with a second-round pick essentially thrown in the trash. But at least this year, the Patriots don’t have a second-round pick for him to use on someone projected to go in the sixth round.
Xavier McKinney, Alabama
Weight: 200 lbs
2019 Stats: 95 total tackles, 3 interceptions, 3 sacks
McKinney is one of the best safeties in the draft, and he’d be an ideal candidate to take the torch from McCourty when the time comes. He’s versatile and comes from Nick Saban’s system, which makes him a prime contender for Belichick’s defense. The two sides met at the Combine, which McKinney described as “awkward,” so that likely means the Patriots really like this kid.
But he would cost the No. 23 overall pick (if he’s still there), and there are other more glaring needs elsewhere on the roster. But if Belichick wants a can’t-miss pick at a position he’s swung and missed at quite a bit, McKinney should be his guy.
Brandon Jones, Texas
Weight: 198 lbs
2019 Stats: 86 total tackles, 2 interceptions, forced fumble
It’s more likely the Patriots will draft a safety with one of their three third-round picks, and Jones would be a good option at that point. Though a bit undersized, he played everywhere at Texas, and we know how Belichick loves versatile players. Jones started games in all four of his seasons at Texas, and was always willing to play through injuries.
He struggled in man-coverage, and is at his best when the action is in front of him. But even if Jones isn’t in New England’s safety plans for 2020, he would find a role on special teams as he develops as an NFL safety.
Geno Stone, Iowa
Weight: 207 lbs
2019 Stats: 70 total tackles, 1 interception, 3 forced fumbles
Another potential mid-round option for New England, Stone is a smart player who plays off his instincts. His size is a bit of a concern, but he does well at reading plays and jumping routes, plus he’s tough as nails. He hits pretty hard too.
While his main contributions will likely come on special teams, he could eventually fill the role left vacant by Duron Harmon’s trade to Detroit.
J.R. Reed, Georgia
Weight: 202 lbs
2019 Stats: 54 total tackles, 1 interception, 7 passes defended
It’s no secret that Belichick likes drafting Bulldogs, and Reed was a three-year starter for Georgia. Another extremely smart player on the field, Reed was a first-team All-American, earned first-team All-SEC honors, and was a Jim Thorpe Award finalist after a solid 2019 season.
Julian Blackmon, Utah
Weight: 187 lbs
2019 Stats: 60 total tackles, 4 interceptions, 4 passes defended
We’re now going to have some fun and look at late-round prospects whom Belichick may draft much earlier than anyone else would consider. Or he could shock the world and just take them when they’re projected, for once.
After spending his first three seasons with the Utes as a cornerback, Blackmon switched to free safety his senior year. The move was a good one, as he led Utah with four interceptions and earned second-team All-American and first-team All-Pac-12 honors by the end of the season.
A torn ACL in the Pac-12 title game has led to his draft stock dropping a bit, as he’s now projected to go sometime on Day 3. He’s still learning the safety position so he’d be a developmental pick, but he’s got some pretty soft hands with nine career picks and 20 passes defended in college. He’s also a strong tackler who many pundits believe will become a three-down player in the NFL.
Tanner Muse, Clemson
Weight: 227 lbs
2019 Stats: 54 total tackles, 4 interceptions, 3 passes defended
Muse is a big kid coming out of a big program, though he may be more of a linebacker in the NFL due to his lack of speed.
But he could help covering tight ends, and could certainly find a role on a special teams unit that lost Nate Ebner this offseason.