Deepest Position of the Team, Tough Cuts Ahead
The Patriots head into training camp this week and there should be no shortage of competition at a number of spots. As a lead-in to the beginning of camp, we’ll break down the positions and give our take on who is a lock, a near lock for the 53-man roster and who is on the bubble. Next up are the Safeties.
Bill Belichick likes to say that the spring’s OTAs and Minicamp is a learning exercise and that the real competition begins in training camp. While that is true to an extent, with 89 players on the current roster, a minimum of 36 of these will be cut. That doesn’t take into consideration the tweaking that goes on during the season after the initial 53-man roster is completed.
So the next position to break down are the safeties. The backend of the Patriots secondary is set, starters Devin McCourty and Pat Chung return and each will turn 29 in training camp so their age isn’t an issue. Duron Harmon is normally the first man on the field, but he missed all of the spring so 2nd-year player Jordan Richards was taking the majority of his reps. Richards is shorter and stockier than Harmon and is a bit stiff for the backup center field role, he’s better suited to the box or the hybrid safety/linebacker role. Nate Ebner will not be at camp, having been granted permission to play rugby in the Olympics.
Those five plus Brandon King were on last year’s roster. The team let Tavon Wilson walk in free agency but waiting in the wings is LB/S Kamu Grugier-Hill, Brock Vereen, Cedric Thompson and the recently signed Vinnie Sunseri.
The team is deep and talented at safety and they’re more than addressed the loss of Wilson who played very little the past two seasons.
So who’s locked in and who’s on the bubble?
Roster Locks: Devin McCourty, Pat Chung, Duron Harmon, Jordan Richards
McCourty is the quarterback of the secondary, a co-captain of the team and the glue that holds everything together on the backend. He still doesn’t get the credit he deserves for his center field play. With each passing year, he’s asserting his leadership more and more and still just 28 is one of the oldest established veterans of the unit.
Pat Chung has excelled in his second stint with the Pats. (USA TODAY Images)
Chung continues to enjoy a renaissance in his second go-around with the team. He plays up in the box and is extremely effective at stopping the run and covering the tight ends. It seems like Chung should be older than 28, but he still has several good years left in his career.
Harmon was considered a reach when he was drafted in 2013 but now he’s a very valuable member of the defense. In certain packages, the team will move McCourty around and bring in Harmon to play centerfield. He played in nearly 54 percent of the team’s defensive snaps and allowed just 4 of 11 passes for 69 yards and two touchdowns in 2015. He was also credited with three passes defended and three interceptions. His 58.5 passer rating against, was the best of the Patriots’ secondary men.
Richards was drafted in the 2nd round of the 2015 NFL Draft with the 64th overall pick. He has an outstanding football I.Q. and is a high character guy. As a rookie, most of his playing time (21% of the defensive snaps), came after McCourty and Chung suffered injuries late in the season. He’s best suited to the backup of Chung, being used down in the box and covering the tight ends.
On the Bubble: Nate Ebner, Brandon King,
King was a pleasant surprise a year ago, carving out a special team’s role and ending up with the second most tackles on the STs unit. He wasn’t given much of a chance of sticking but worked closely with Special Team’s Coach Joe Judge and had a solid rookie season.
Ebner was given a contract extension this spring and has been a valuable member of the STs unit. But he was granted a leave of absence to compete in the 2016 Summer Olympics as a member of the US National Men’s Rugby Team. He’s been a fixture here but his absence could open the door for another player who steps up in training camp.
Kamu Grugier-Hill could be one of those players. An undersized, athletic demon on special teams, he could easily carve out a role for himself on defense as well. He’s one of those LB/S hybrids that teams are filling their rosters with.
Brandon King had a solid rookie season competing on Special Teams. (SBalestrieri/PatsFans Images)
Outside Looking in…. Longshots: Vinnie Sunseri, Brock Vereen, Cedric Thompson
Sunseri is an intriguing player, someone I was hoping the Patriots would take a look at in 2014 when he was taken by the Saints in the NFL Draft. He’s the son of the Raiders’ coach Sal Sunseri and was lauded by his teammates at ‘Bama as being a coach on the field. An excellent special teams’ leader, he is also injury prone. He blew out an ACL in his senior season, had his rookie year cut short with a broken arm and missed all of 2015. This may be an audition of another kind. He may end up being a coach in the not too distant future, and maybe Belichick is building off of some first-hand knowledge of him.
Vereen was signed to the Patriots practice squad in November after being released by the Bears and then the Vikings. After the season was over, he signed a future’s contract for 2016. Vereen can play safety and has filled in at slot corner. He’s considered a core special teams’ player and served as a gunner for a bit this spring. He is a longshot to make the roster.
Thompson spent all of 2015 on the Dolphins’ practice squad after being drafted by Miami in the 5th Round of the 2015 NFL Draft out of Minnesota. He wasn’t resigned and the Pats signed him to a future’s contract. The 6’0, 212-pound safety is another longshot to make the roster given the depth.
Check out our earlier primers on the running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive line, defensive line, linebackers and the cornerbacks. And be sure to keep tuned into PatsFans.com during training camp as we’ll post daily updates from down in Gillette.