Tag Archives: Patriots safeties

Patriots 2019 Training Camp Guide – Safeties

Steve Balestrieri
July 23, 2019 at 8:00 am ET

The Patriots’ training camp starts in just two days, it is one of our favorite times of the year. All 32 teams are beginning with a clean slate and are trying to build the best version of themselves as possible. 

Today, we’re looking at the safeties and there promises to be virtually no movement at the top of the depth chart. The Patriots have been fielding the same top three safeties at the top of their depth chart for several years now. 

Devin McCourty, Pat Chung, and Duron Harmon are all considered starters and all three are frequently on the field at the same time. However, after those three, competition is wide open for one, possibly two, with an outside chance of three roster spots. (In our initial 53-man roster projection, we had them keeping only four safeties.)

Special teamer Nate Ebner, Terrence Brooks, Obi Melifonwu, A.J. Howard, and rookie UDFA Malik Grant round out the position. 

Check back with PatsFans.com as we’ll go thru the entire roster as our primers for training camp continue before the heavy lifting starts on July 25. And be sure to keep up with our coverage from training camp. 

So, let’s take a look at the position as it unfolds as training camp begins this summer.

Current roster – Devin McCourty, Pat Chung, Duron Harmon, Nate Ebner, Terrence Brooks, Obi Melifonwu, A.J. Howard, Malik Gant

Locks – McCourty, Chung, Harmon, Brooks

Near Locks –  none

Bubble – Ebner,  Melifonwu, Howard

Long Shot – Gant

Discussion – With the top three players returning, one can expect the position on Week 1 against the Steelers to look exactly the same as it has for a long time. McCourty, Chung, and Harmon are all locks for the roster and the only way we can see them not being on the field against Pittsburgh is because of injury. 

However, both McCourty and Chung are on the wrong side of 30 and despite very solid play from both, it is time the team begins grooming their eventual replacements. McCourty flirted with retirement after the Super Bowl. It wouldn’t surprise me if he called it a career after the 2019 season. Chung is coming off of offseason surgery for his arm which was injured in the Super Bowl. Harmon is essentially a starter and should be around for the next couple of years. And that is where the team now stands. 

Are there replacements for Chung and McCourty currently on the roster as it now is constructed? Time will tell. Here is where the competition proves to get fierce this summer. 

The Patriots gave Brooks a two-year, $4 million dollar contract with a $500,000 signing bonus and $1.3 million guaranteed. So, because of his deal in 2019, it is really hard to see the Patriots letting go of the 27-year-old backup safety. Brooks led the Jets in special teams snaps in 2018 and he should a core mainstay on the Patriots ST units. 

Melifonwu is perhaps the most intriguing member of the group. Easily the most athletic of the group, Melifonwu has tremendous size (6’4, 224) with elite athleticism. The Patriots picked him up in midseason last year and with a full offseason under his belt, he now knows the defense. It is unclear if the team views him as a deep safety who will compete with Harmon or an in-the-box safety behind Chung. With Chung missing minicamp, Melifonwu got a lot of reps with the top unit. He will bear watching in what could be a make-or-break season for him. 

Every year we put Ebner on the bubble, you’d think by now, we’d have learned our lesson and recognize the fact that Bill Belichick loves what he’s got in the backup safety and special teams standout. But the fact that Brooks was brought in strictly for his special teams’ acumen, could be a omen that Ebner’s time is waning with the team. He is starting the year on PUP. But then I remember Belichick wearing Ebner’s rugby jersey at TC while Ebner was away representing the USA. 

Howard had an impressive career at Appalachian State but went undrafted. He spent time with the Cardinals and Giants before the Patriots picked him up in early January. He’s a strong safety who will try to carve out a spot for himself this summer or try to land on the Patriots practice squad. 

Gant is a strong safety who plays with a chip on his shoulder. He’s a thumper in the running game and offers good size (6’2, 200) for the position. Right now, he’s a long shot to make the roster but is a great candidate for the team to develop on the practice squad.  One thing to keep in mind is that with Joejuan Williams at a corner, he may be able to help cover some of the tight ends traditionally covered by the safeties.

The Patriots enter the season in very good shape at the safety position but it is time to begin developing and making plans for the eventual replacements for McCourty and Chung. There should be great competition here but again as with the cornerback position, it will take place at the back end of the depth chart. 

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Patriots 2018 Training Camp Primer – Safeties

Steve Balestrieri
July 23, 2018 at 8:00 am ET

With training camp just days away, our look at the 90-man roster is nearly complete. We’ve looked at the different positions on offense and most of the defense.

So next up is the Patriots’ safety position. The team has been fortunate to have had no turnover in the safety position and return the top three players who are ostensibly starters in their own right.

The team normally carries a few safeties as special teamers and this year will be no exception. Last season the team began with five safeties on the roster. So, with that in mind who is locked in and who is on the bubble?

Roster Locks: Devin McCourty, Pat Chung, Duron Harmon, Nate Ebner

The team is in very good shape at safety to start the season as they have all three starters returning for 2018. McCourty is an excellent free safety and makes all the calls for the secondary as the quarterback back there. He’s a team captain and a leader, on and off the field.

Not only is he always in the right position but he ensures everyone else is too on the field. He’s like having an extra coach on the field. He’s become a much more vocal presence on the field as one of the captains and is a leader on and off the field.

Chung has been a totally different player in his second stint with the Patriots. The coaches play him close to the line of scrimmage in the box where he’s much more effective. He outstanding in run support, and like everyone else in the secondary, is a good tackler and is rarely out of position.

He’s physical and does a pretty good job of covering backs out of the backfield and tight ends close to the line of scrimmage. He’s a solid locker room guy and seems to be a popular teammate while being another quiet leader.

Harmon is essentially a starter with the number of snaps he plays and he has a tremendous nose for the football. A few of his big plays that come to mind are the interception to seal the deal against Baltimore in the playoffs and the one to close out the close win in Pittsburgh a year ago.  Harmon allows the Patriots to move McCourty around in the big nickel defense. He’s always making big plays at key times and is a very trusted player on the defense.

If McCourty were to miss any time with an injury, Harmon can be relied on to step in and do the job. Would he be able to make all the calls? That’s a question that we don’t know yet, but he’s another valuable piece of the defense.

Ebner is coming off of a serious injury where he was placed on IR, however, he was re-signed to a two-year, $5 million dollar deal this spring, so he’s not going anywhere. He’s more of an STs ace than a safety, however.

On the Bubble: David Jones, Jordan Richards

The Patriots signed UDFA safety Jones from Richmond last year and he has very good size for a strong safety at 6’3, 210 pounds to be a backup and eventual replacement for Pat Chung. He stuck on the practice squad last year, he saw almost 50 percent of the snaps in preseason and was a Patriots practice player of the week six times in 2017.

Jones is athletic for a big man and returned kicks and punts in college and got some work in the return game last year. But he missed all of the spring with an unspecified injury so we’ll have to see if he’s healthy once camp begins.

Richards continues to be unimpressive when he’s asked to play defense. After being a high draft pick (2nd Round, 64th overall) in the 2015 NFL Draft, he barely played defense in his first two years, and after a disastrous preseason in 2017, it was a surprise to not only see him make the roster but play significant snaps on defense. And the results were not good.

He’s very stiff in his change of direction and takes horrible angles. Despite being a very solid locker room guy and very good on STs, his spot has to be tenuous after the showing he had in 2017. If Jones or Travis (below) can show the same STs ability, they could get the nod.

Outside Looking In… Long Shots:  Damarius Travis

The Patriots signed Travis as a UDFA and he’s an in-the-box safety. He has very good size at 6’2, 210 but he too is a bit stiff in his ability to change direction at the NFL level. He does a very good job against the run and is considered a high character player and person. He does, however, have excellent special teams’ ability.

So it should be noted that Jones, Richards and Travis are essentially playing for one roster spot unless they decide to bring in another player.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

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New England Patriots Draft Profile, Ronnie Harrison, S, Alabama

Steve Balestrieri
April 2, 2018 at 8:30 am ET

Harrison Is Another Bama Safety Destined For Big Things

As the 2018 NFL Draft draws closer we’ll profile some of the players that may be on the Patriots radar or that we feel would be a great fit.

The Patriots are set at Safety with all three starters returning in Devin McCourty, Pat Chung and Duron Harmon. We say starting because all three play enough snaps to be considered starters. But in August both McCourty and Chung will turn 31(13th and 19th respectively) and it isn’t too soon for the Patriots to begin looking for possible prospects as replacements.

Alabama is a place where Bill Belichick’s buddy Nick Saban cranks out NFL ready players, especially on their defense. In recent years the Crimson Tide has produced Eddie Jackson, Clinton Ha-Ha Dix, and Landon Collins to make their mark on the Pros.

This season’s crop has two that should be gone off the draft boards by the 2nd round. The Patriots have a thing about selecting safeties early in the draft and with Harmon facing possible discipline from the league over a recent incident in Costa Rica, they could be in the market again. Although they have three other safeties in Nate Ebner, Brandon King, and Jordan Richards, Ebner and King are special teamers and Richards has filled in at safety but not very well (see Super Bowl LII). David Jones is on the practice squad.

Ronnie Harrison from Alabama is another excellent safety from the Crimson Tide program. He possesses great size (6’3, 216) and speed. Harrison was a high school quarterback, so he understands well what the offense is trying to do. He is versatile and has played both safety spots but he’s a better fit as the strong safety in the box due to his issues with the changing of direction and range. But as an overall safety? There are few better in the country.

He has plenty of physicality, athleticism and good instincts to be an impact player on Day 1. Bama moved him around but he was at his best when they had him attacking the line of scrimmage. He does a great job of recognizing plays and attacking downhill.

He’s outstanding in run support, filling the holes quickly and a violent, punishing hitter in the trenches. He led the team with 74 tackles, (43 solos) and seven passes defensed with three interceptions.

Harrison has the size, speed and physicality to play the linebacker role in the Patriots “Big Nickel” defense as well as their in the box safety.

Pros:

– Outstanding size and speed

– Excellent in run support

– Very good blitzer

– Physical, Competitive, versatile

Cons

– Can play a bit out of control

– Doesn’t always wrap up, goes for the big hit

– Range is good but not elite

What his Role Will Be:

Harrison could immediately vie for reps and let the coaches see what he can do. They’ll spell Chung and McCourty for a bit and let the rookie get his feet wet in the NFL. As we mentioned above, he could be used as the linebacker in the Patriots “big nickel” look on defense.

Will his Role Change from Year 1-2?

Yes, in Year 2 with a bit of experience, he could push Chung for his roster spot. Or perhaps Harmon.

How Many Downs Can He Play?

Three

What Current Player on the Roster Will He Replace?

Harrison would be an immediate upgrade from Richards and he’d take over his STs duties as well

What is his ST Value?

He’d immediately become a core special teams guy with his athleticism and physicality.

Conclusion:
NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein in his profile wrote that “Combination safety with all the size and athletic traits you could hope for in a safety. Harrison is a fluid athlete with few athletic limitations and has the ability to fit into a variety of defensive schemes. His penchant for flying in shoulder first will need to get cleaned or risk giving up missed tackles and big plays. Harrison’s physical approach and urgency in run support gives him a chance to start early, but his potential in coverage and athletic ability give him a chance to become a Pro Bowler.”

Harrison isn’t without a few issues that will need to be cleaned up. He doesn’t have great range or change of direction which could limit his use as a single high safety. He sometimes goes too much for the big hit and doesn’t wrap up which can result in a big play or broken tackle.

But as a strong safety in the box, he’s outstanding in run support and he’ll be just fine covering tight ends close to the line. He could easily gain another 5-10 pounds without any loss of speed and be the hybrid safety/linebacker the Patriots like to use in their big nickel packages. His physicality, and instincts are off the charts. By Year 2, he’ll be not only pushing for starter reps but could become an impact player on the defense.

While safety isn’t a position of need right now, the Patriots could find themselves in a dilemma.  If Harrison is on the board, the team could be hard-pressed to pass him up. He is a potential Pro Bowler and will be a very solid player at the next level. Zierlein compared him to a young Adrian Wilson and that may be the best description of him yet.  

Harrison’s highlight reel tape from Harris Highlights can be seen here: 

 

His game against Colorado highlights from Felipe Vierra can be seen here: 

 

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

New England Patriots Training Camp Primer: Safety

Steve Balestrieri
July 20, 2017 at 6:30 am ET

Proven Veteran Leadership, Solid Depth

The Patriots head into training camp at the end of next 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. And we’re on to 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. With a roster of 90 players and no cuts needed before the final 53-man roster cut down, there will be plenty of time for evaluation. And some serious decisions will have to be made to get to the 53-man limit at the end of camp this summer.

Our earlier evaluations looked at the:
Running Backs
Wide Receivers
Tight Ends
Offensive Line
Defensive Line
Linebackers
Cornerbacks

So next up is the Patriots’ safety position. This spring the team had the good fortune and smarts to bring back safety Duron Harmon during free agency. The re-signing of, in essence, the third starter because he plays so many snaps was a win/win. Harmon has been the team’s third safety in their big nickel package and he’d fill in as the team’s center fielder and many times they’d move McCourty, who used to be a cornerback into the slot.

McCourty and Chung return and are a savvy pair of veterans. They both should be around for at least 2017 and possibly beyond. The team normally carries a few safeties as special teamers and this year will be no exception.

So, with that in mind who is locked in and who is on the bubble?

Roster Locks: Devin McCourty, Pat Chung, Duron Harmon
The team is in very good shape at safety to start the season as they have all three starters returning for 2017. McCourty is an excellent free safety and makes all the calls for the secondary as the quarterback back there. He’s a team captain and a leader, on and off the field.

Not only is he always in the right position but he ensures everyone else is too on the field. He’s like having an extra coach on the field. He’s not a big rah-rah guy but leads by example and makes himself and everyone else accountable.


Pat Chung has been very solid in his second stint in New England. (USA TODAY Images)

Chung has been enjoying a career rejuvenation in his second stint with the Patriots. The coaches use him close to the line of scrimmage in the box where he’s much more effective. He terrific in run support, and like everyone else in the secondary, is a good tackler and is rarely out of position.

He’s physical and does a pretty good job of covering backs out of the backfield and tight ends close to the line of scrimmage. He’s a solid locker room guy and seems to be a popular teammate while being another quiet leader.

Bringing back Harmon on what is a pretty team-friendly deal was a great move. He was already essentially a starter with the number of snaps he’s played and he has a tremendous nose for the football. Harmon allows the Patriots to move McCourty around in the big nickel defense. He’s always making big plays at key times and is a very trusted player on the defense.

If McCourty were to miss any time with an injury, Harmon can be relied on to step in and do the job. Would he be able to make all the calls? That’s a question that we don’t know yet, but he’s another valuable piece of the defense.

Near Roster Locks: None

On the Bubble: David Jones, Jordan Richards
The Patriots signed UDFA safety Jones from Richmond this spring and he may be a player for fans to keep an eye on this summer. He’s got very good size for a strong safety at 6’3, 210 pounds to be a backup and eventual replacement for Pat Chung. Playing a very physical position takes a toll and the Patriots need a reliable backup.

Keep an eye on David Jones (#34) this summer, here with the Patriots safeties and coach Steve Belichick. (SBalestrieri photo)

Jones is athletic for a big man and returned kicks and punts in college and got some work in the return game during the spring. The more you can do, the more valuable you are to the coaches. Watching him in our limited window this spring, he impressed in coverage against the backup receivers. Now when the pads come on Thursday, will be a big test.

Richards’ career is at a crossroads in just his third season. After being a high draft pick (2nd Round, 64th overall) in the 2015 NFL Draft, he hasn’t made an impact and was buried on the depth chart in his second season, when Bill Belichick says most players make a big jump in their development.

He’s looked stiff in the hips and hasn’t been able to stick with receivers. He played just 18 defensive snaps in 2016 and just a third of the special teams’ snaps a year ago. He’s going to have to earn his way on the roster this summer. Right now, and it is very early with a limited view, but I’d put Jones ahead of Richards, especially given his ability to be an impact STs player. This will be a positional battle to watch.

Outside Looking In… Long Shots: Damarius Travis, Jason Thompson
The Patriots signed Travis as a UDFA and he’s an in-the-box safety. He has decent size at 6’2, 210 but he too is a bit stiff in the hips and may be a liability in coverage at the NFL level. He does a very good job against the run and is considered a high character player and person. He has excellent special teams’ ability and led Minnesota with 17 special teams’ tackles.

Thompson is a long shot to make the roster but if he shows enough of special teams, he could stick or make the Patriots practice squad. He wasn’t a starter in college and switched from QB to safety. He’s got decent size at 6’2, 210, and ran a 4.44 in the 40-Yard Dash and logged a very impressive 6.57 time in the 3-Cone Drill which would have been second in the Combine.

So, before we have everyone reaching for cell phones and keyboards for our snubbing of Nate Ebner and Brandon King…you’ll just have to wait until tomorrow we post our Special Teams primer…

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

All the DBs Impressed, But Melifonwu, Patriots Are a Great Fit

Steve Balestrieri
March 6, 2017 at 4:01 pm ET

The Patriots have some holes to fill and some intriguing decisions to make in the coming weeks with Free Agency right around the corner and the NFL Draft coming up in April.  And in the Patriots secondary, with Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon probably leaving via free agency, the holes to fill are big. Well, UConn has a big safety that may be just what the doctor ordered in Obi Melifonwu.

Melifonwu crushed it at the Combine; he measured in at 6’4, 224-pounds. He’d be the biggest member of the secondary by far. But the kid can move, he had a broad jump of 11’9 and a vertical leap of 44 inches. But the thing was, when they announced his vertical leap, he seemed disappointed that it wasn’t more. He then ran a 4.40 in the 40 which is incredible for a player of his size.

Mike Mayock was raving about his versatility and that may be his biggest selling point. Melifonwu can play centerfield as a deep safety, has the size, physicality and tackling ability to play in the box. And as Mayock pointed out, with a matchup team like the Patriots and Bill Belichick, he can matchup with big tight ends one week and the next week be put outside on a big wide receiver the following week.

Melinfonwu was an outstanding player in Central Mass at Grafton High School before going to UConn. We reached out to his high school coach, Chris McMahon about what makes him tick and what kind of young man he is.

“He’s a great kid,” McMahon said on Monday afternoon. “He’s very quiet and very business-like. He took everything seriously and worked very hard for everything he’s gotten.”

McMahon credited Melifonwu’s mother, who kept his feet and those of his brothers firmly on the ground. “You’ll never find a nicer, polite group of kids and I credit Mrs. Melifonwu for raising them that way.”

“I knew he had unlimited potential, and you knew just from watching him if he could put everything together, he would explode. And his on-field performance today…that was just incredible. He’s a tremendous athlete and an extremely hard worker. Even during college spring breaks, the kids all go to Florida, he’d come back up here and hit the weight room,” McMahon said.

“Obi was one of the best players ever to come thru our program [Grafton] and one of the best in CMass in years. He played QB, RB, WR, and returned kicks he scored fifty-something touchdowns for us, and on defense, he played corner, safety, and even some linebacker.

“It seems like yesterday that came here as a freshman and amazing to see the man that he’s become. Like I said, you always knew it was there, and it happened really quick for him at UConn. McMahon talked about the buzz that is going on with the draft now and the fact that Melifonwu may end up being a first-round draft pick. “My phone hasn’t stopped ringing,” he added.

The crazy part is, Melifonwu may not even be the best football player in the family. His younger brother Ifeatu, known locally as “Iffy” just finished a stellar high school career at Grafton and is heading for Syracuse. Last summer while working out with the Syracuse coaches he ran a 4:50 in the 40….but that is for another day.

The Patriots could add a very intriguing, and versatile piece of the defense in April when the draft rolls around. It is easy to envision Melifonwu wearing a bunch of different hats depending on the opponent from week to week.

He’d be a tremendous fit in the Patriots defense as well as in the locker room. And he’d fulfill a position of need.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

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New England Patriots Free Agent Profile Duron Harmon

Steve Balestrieri
February 21, 2017 at 7:34 am ET

The Patriots will enter the beginning of the 2017 league season with several important decisions to make in regards to free agency. While the team has the third most salary cap room in the NFL this season, they have a slew of free agents including several who are either starters or important role players.

We’ll be doing profiles on each of the free agents in the upcoming days and give you our take on whether they return or move on. One of the players that is an important role player is safety, Duron Harmon.

The Patriots’ 26-year old safety from Rutgers has been a valuable member of the secondary. Harmon is kind of a closer for the team. Time and again, he’s shown the knack for making the big interception to close out games as the Patriots third safety. He had an interception against the Houston Texans in the Divisional Round and nearly had another in the Super Bowl against Matt Ryan. It was a play he normally comes down with.

Everyone remembers his interception against Joe Flacco and the Ravens in the 2014 Divisional Round that sealed the Patriots comeback win. It is typical of the play that we’ve come to expect from Harmon in big situations.

When the team goes to their “Big Nickel” look with three safeties, Harmon comes in and plays the deep centerfield role, something he’s excelled in. He’s almost a starter, logging about 49 percent of the defensive snaps in 2016.


Duron Harmon intercepts Joe Flacco in the 2014 Divisional Round of the playoffs. (USA TODAY Images)

The Patriots drafted Harmon in the 3rd Round, 91st overall in the 2013 NFL Draft.  His role has steadily evolved since then and he’s now a trusted integral part of the defense. Harmon finished his fourth year with a second Super Bowl ring, and he’s in line to get a nice pay increase. While the Patriots would surely be willing to increase his pay, the question now becomes, will another swoop in and wow Harmon with a big money contract and a chance to be a starter?

Why Harmon Will Return: The Patriots and Bill Belichick know that you can never have enough defensive backs, especially ones with the big play ability that Harmon has. He’s proven that the big moments of games aren’t too big for him, he has a knack for always being in the right place at the right time.

He knows the system, the coaches, and his fellow players. He’s a de facto starter with Devin McCourty and Pat Chung, the three work extremely well together. He’s the insurance for McCourty in the case of injury, something the Patriots no doubt recognize.

He shouldn’t break the bank to re-sign and given a nice pay raise, he could continue in his role with the team and provide them with solid play on the back end and insurance for McCourty. There is the subject of winning also. Harmon has two Super Bowl Rings in just four years. In his other two years, the Patriots went to the conference championship game. By now, he’s met several other players who’ve come to New England after toiling for years without a sniff of the playoffs. That is a draw that can’t be discounted.

Why Harmon Won’t Return: There is a very real possibility that another team will recognize Harmon’s talents for what they are and pay him much more than the Patriots would. While the money is one thing, the opportunity to go from being a de facto starter to becoming a starter and playing in 90 percent + of the reps is another.

While he’s not a household name with casual fans around the NFL, the scouts and GMs of opposing teams know his worth. And one of them may feel he’s ready to assume the mantle of leadership that McCourty enjoys here as the centerfielder and leader of the secondary.

Money is always an issue in free agency. One of the reasons the Patriots have enjoyed such success under Bill Belichick is because they won’t fall into the trap of overpaying for players, either their own or others who have hit the market. If another team offers Harmon more than the Pats deem his value is, then he’ll be gone.

Bottom Line: The Patriots have an eclectic group of safeties. The three ostensible starters, McCourty, Chung, and Harmon all have varying skill sets that makes them click so well. McCourty is the centerfielder who can move down into the box and cover the slot receivers like a cornerback.

Chung is an in-the-box safety who is outstanding in run support and can cover in the short areas of the field. He plays the role of a linebacker in the Patriots big nickel formations.

Harmon doesn’t have the versatility of McCourty and while not a detriment in run support, that isn’t a position of strength. But he’s a fantastic deep cover safety with excellent ball skills and anticipation. The other three safeties on the roster, Nate Ebner, Brandon King and Jordan Richards are mainly special teams’ mavens.

Together the three make a fantastic trio that locks down the deep part of the field and provides good support underneath. When was the last time, you saw the safeties get burned on a deep ball?

That’s why the Patriots should make a concerted effort to retain Harmon preferably before the March 9th, 4:00 p.m. deadline when free agency begins. They probably can convince him to stay put with a nice increase in pay. An added incentive is always the chance to play deep into the playoffs every year, something that can’t be discounted.

However, the chances of that happening are going to be low. There should be a decent amount of interest for Harmon’s services once free agency begins in earnest. Therefore, the chances of his returning are only about 50-50 in a Patriots uniform in 2017.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Patriots Training Camp Primer – Safeties

Steve Balestrieri
July 26, 2016 at 6:00 am ET

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.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Patriots Free Agent Profile – Nate Ebner

Steve Balestrieri
February 13, 2016 at 9:34 am ET

The Patriots have a couple of decisions to make in regard to free agents this off-season, but they are mainly to do with their role players and not with the starters like last year or the upcoming 2017 season.

The Patriots are deepest at the safety position with Devin McCourty, Pat Chung, Duron Harmon, Jordan Richards, Tavon Wilson, S/LB Brandon King and Nate Ebner on the roster during the 2015.

But Ebner like Wilson and King makes his living (and very well) as being a core special teams player. Since being drafted in the 6th round of the 2012 NFL Draft, no one has played more STs snaps than Ebner.  He plays few snaps on defense but it one of the team’s more valued players there besides Matthew Slater. The Patriots have long coveted those type of players dating back to Larry Izzo, Chris and Tracy White under Bill Belichick.

The 6’0, 200-pound Ohio State product is as tough as they come, being a former member of the US National Rugby Team. While a Buckeye, his prowess on kickoffs is stuff of legend as he was compared to “a heat seeking missile.”  He and fellow former Australian rugby star Jarryd Hayne are making the NFL much more visible for the game’s closely related cousin.

“Maybe it’s the physical nature of what both sports bring that allows some transition there, but I think it all comes down to a personal mindset,” Ebner said to Patriots.com back in preseason. “Whoever it is, I just think it’s a personal mindset. The role you take, how you play the game. I think it depends on the person, man.”

Still young, Ebner will be 27 when the season starts in September. Although his 40-time (4.53) isn’t fantastic, his athletic change of direction in the all-important three-cone (6.59 seconds), strength (23 reps) and explosion (39-inch vertical leap, 10’8″ broad jump) are in rarified air for a safety.

Why Ebner Will Return: Ebner is one of the Patriots’ toughest hombres on the field. Anyone who’s played at a high level of rugby has that block checked. His special teams value is right up there with Slater and Belichick, coming from a STs background, has always placed a high premium on their play.

A new contract for him shouldn’t break the bank, the team could probably re-sign him for around the $1million-dollar mark. Given that he’s a core special teamer who can fill in as a sub-linebacker or safety in short yardage or goal line, it is a bargain.

Bill Belichick certainly has a lot to say on whether they bring him back, he’s what he had to say about Ebner prior to Super Bowl XLIX, “His development has really been outstanding. I would probably put him in the, not the all-time top, but maybe in the top-five percent all time of players that I’ve coached, from where they were in college to how they grew in the NFL,” Belichick said.

“He has adapted in a relatively short amount of time to the knowledge of our defense, to the understanding of opponents’ offenses, to instinctiveness and reading and recognition at a position that he plays right in the middle of the field, which is among the most difficult – inside linebacker and safety – where the number of things that can happen is the greatest.

Why Ebner Won’t Return: The Patriots would probably try to match anything up to a certain degree if they were to get into a bidding war for Ebner’s services. Where he has a very limited value on defense, the biggest threat to his not returning would be if a Special Teams needy team wants him to anchor down their unit, in the manner of Slater and wants to pay him for that.

Bottom Line:  This one is a no-brainer; there is virtually no way other than the above scenario that the Patriots wouldn’t want to bring Ebner back. He, Slater and King are the cornerstones of a very solid unit that is already set in the kicking department with Stephen Gostkowski, Ryan Allen and long-snapper Joe Cardona.

Ebner along with Akiem Hicks has been tagged all along as the Patriots two most prized free agents to bring back this season.

Chances are around 90 percent that the Patriots bring him back in 2016.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcast on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Patriots Free Agent Profile – Tavon Wilson

Steve Balestrieri
February 9, 2016 at 9:59 am ET

The Patriots have a couple of decisions to make in regard to free agents this offseason, but they are mainly to do with their role players and not with the starters like last year or the upcoming 2017 season.

Tavon Wilson is one of two safeties (Nate Ebner), that the Patriots have as a free agent this season. Wilson, who will turn 26 on March 19 was originally drafted by the Patriots in the 2nd round (48th overall) from Illinois, in the 2012 NFL Draft.

Originally thought to be drafted to be a starting strong safety, it hasn’t worked out that way and Wilson has made his mark as a reserve, playing mostly dime linebacker in the ‘Big Nickle’ sub-packages or on Special Teams.

Wilson had his best season in his rookie year of 2012, where he played in all 16 and got four starts in place of an injured Steve Gregory in October. That year he made 41 tackles, had six passes defensed and had four interceptions along with two fumble recoveries.

But with the additions of Duron Harmon and Jordan Richards this season, he’s found himself pushed farther down the depth chart. He was inactive for seven games during the regular season and for both playoff games.

Why Wilson Will Return: Wilson is versatile, tough and has always has a positive mental outlook on things regardless of what his status may be for a particular game. The 6’0, 215-pound Wilson can be a strong safety in the box, play the dime linebacker or be one of the core special teams players on the roster.

Wilson knocks it away

He showcased his versatility and ability to adapt this past season when after playing a total of nine snaps on defense all season, He was thrust in a key role against the Buffalo Bills on Monday Night Football.

The Patriots were woefully thin at cornerback with only starters Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan and reserve Rashaan Melvin who had a poor game the week before. The Pats eschewed the normal 4-2-5 look with three corners and went ‘Big Nickel’ with three safeties facing the potent Bills rushing attack.

Wilson also stayed on the field in their 4-1-6 dime look when they went to four safeties on the field. In all, he played 50 snaps in the Bills game on defense and was solid with three solo tackles.

He probably won’t command very much interest on the open market and could be brought back very cheaply in terms of salary cap implications

Why Wilson Won’t Return: The Patriots have a plethora of safeties, it is arguably the deepest position on the team. And Wilson has never really lived up to his second round draft selection status, having been a backup for his entire time with the Patriots.

Now entering his fifth season, if there is one safety they can afford to let walk it is him. The emergence of S/LB Brandon King on special teams has made Wilson’s presence there an afterthought. Which was why he had been a healthy scratch for so much of the season.

With a couple of corners coming back from serious injuries this season, they’ll want to have more balance in the secondary depending upon the opponent they’ll be facing. And they’ll opt for another corner on the roster which doesn’t bode well for Wilson’s chances at winning a roster spot in 2016.

Bottom Line:  Wilson has been a solid role player for the team which is why I think there is about a 30-40 percent chance that they offer him a chance to return next season.

But with the Patriots track record of adding safeties through either the draft or via the UDFA route, I would expect that they’ll let Wilson walk and try to find a new home where he’ll have the opportunity to play a larger role than here in New England.

While it wouldn’t be a shocker for him to return, I think he’ll be in another uniform come September.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcast on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.