Few, if any, teams in the National Football League place as high of a premium on employing a strong defensive backfield as the New England Patriots. Whether it be at cornerback or safety, the Pats pride themselves on fielding a secondary that is capable of playing intelligent, preventative football, while blending the ability to aggressively make plays.
Although New England’s cornerback tandem of Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson exudes its share of star power, the safety depth chart will once again be stocked with versatility and potential in 2021. Despite the retirement of long-time safety Patrick Chung, the Pats maintain a good blend of youth and experience at the position.
The Patriots’ safeties are led by team captain Devin McCourty. Since making a positional switch from cornerback in 2012, the 33-year-old remains the cornerstone of the Patriots’ secondary as their starting free safety. He is also one of the team’s foremost leaders in the locker room. However, McCourty’s value to New England’s defensive backfield is far from being merely symbolic. On the field, he is expected to play the deep role, while situationally playing close to the line of scrimmage in some coverage packages. McCourty also handled the on-field play direction duties in 2020; a role from which he should be relieved by the returning Dont’a Hightower in the upcoming season.
The Pats are also expected to bring back safety and core special teamer Cody Davis. In his first season with New England in 2020, Davis served as a reserve safety. However, his primary role came in the kicking game on special teams. Davis was a key component on New England’s punt and kickoff coverage teams, both return teams, and on kick blocking units. Assuming good health, Davis should continue in the same role in 2021.
The Pats did make an addition to the safety depth chart via the 2021 NFL Draft. The Patriots opened the sixth round by selecting Missouri S Joshuah Bledsoe with the 188th overall selection. Throughout his four years at Mizzou, Bledsoe started 40 of his 43 games. He appeared as a box safety, free safety, and slot corner. As a result, Bledsoe projects as a versatile safety for the Patriots. His ideal fit would feature him in the D-gap/slot, in a Big-nickel heavy defensive scheme, featuring man-to-man coverage assignments.
New England also added veteran Adrian Colbert, as a free agent signing. Colbert, who spent much of 2020 as a member of the New York Giants, is expected to compete for a rotational backup role. Despite offering experience both on the defensive side of the ball and in the kicking game, the 27-year-old faces a tall task in trying to secure a roster spot with the Pats. Should he impress New England’s coaching staff in training camp, Colbert would seem to be a more natural fit as a free safety.
Though many of the aforementioned players are expected to garner some attention during this season’s training camp, here are three players that might raise an eyebrow… or perhaps, catch a ‘sharp eye’ among the Patriots’ safeties in 2021.
As a second-round draft choice in the 2020 NFL Draft, Kyle Dugger entered the NFL with a great deal of intrigue surrounding him. While he started his rookie season in a rotational role, he soon became a starter throughout the second half of the season.The Lenoir-Rhyne product brought an excellent blend of speed, length, size to Foxboro. At his best, he is able to cover a lot of ground and has the tools to match up with tight ends in coverage. Dugger is also a good tackler, capable of making stops in key situations. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Dugger’s progress in his rookie season was his demonstration of strong football acumen. He showed great instincts and exhibited a deep understanding of the playbook. As such, he should be expected to see considerable playing time as a box/strong safety (similar to the role played by Patrick Chung), along with some situational with some snaps as the deep man.
One might be hard pressed to find a better player to personify the term ‘versatility’ than Adrian Phillips He arrived in New England, expected to make his most effective impact on special teams. After all, Phillips had earned All Pro honors in special teams in 2018, as a member of the Los Angeles Chargers. However, Phillps would end up being one of the team’s most reliable defenders. The former Charger settled into the ‘Star’ role in the Pats defense in 2020, which is a hybrid box safety, capable of playing outside linebacker in most 4-3 schemes. Phillips finished the season with 109 total tackles and two interceptions. In 2021, he is once again projected to play a similar role. With the return of Dont’a Hightower and the signing of Matt Judon, Phillips will likely see a decrease in the number of snaps he takes at linebacker. However, when he is deployed within New England’s backfield, Phillips will likely play close to the box more than split out wide or deep. He will also continue to be a fixture on the Patriots’ special teams on all four coverage and return units,
While Joejuan Williams is technically listed as a cornerback on New England’s positional depth charts, the Vanderbilt product might benefit from a change of duties in 2021. Williams possesses plenty of potential value due to his size and athleticism. At 6-foot-4, he could be effective when used as a rotational perimeter and slot cornerback against taller pass catchers. However, Williams might be best utilized as a safety/linebacker hybrid that covers opposing tight ends. During training camp in 2020, he was being used more in this type of specialized role; defending tight ends and big receivers. In fact, Williams actually looked better against tight ends than he did while guarding wide receivers. He had some tight coverage wins against then-rookie Devin Asiasi, even forcing an incompletion at one point. If provided the opportunity to do the same in 2021’s training camp, Williams might make a strong case for increased playing time, accompanied by a full transition to safety.