Valuable McCourty no nickel-and-dimer

Devin McCourty is threatening the Patriots record for interceptions by a rookie. Devin McCourty is threatening the Patriots record for interceptions by a rookie. (File/John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / December 12, 2010

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“Although he won’t be counted on to step right in as a starter . . . should excel as a sub-defender/special teamer in his rookie season.’’

“I thought he was a borderline [first-round] guy.’’ Mel Kiper, ESPN

“The best special teams player in the draft . . . Will compete for time in your nickel and dime package.’’ Mike Mayock, NFL Network

FOXBOROUGH — The above evaluations aren’t terrible, but they aren’t glowing, either.

All of them were said about the Patriots’ first-round draft pick, cornerback Devin McCourty.

None of them turned out to be on the money.

Projections are a tough business. For all of the time spent on scouting and travel and draft boards, NFL teams miss on draft picks nearly as often as they hit. Draft experts, who spend hours watching games and film, can be off the mark as well.

Twelve games into his rookie year, it’s safe to say most of the draftniks were wrong when it came to McCourty. If everything that’s said about him around Gillette Stadium is true, he will be special.

The quiet rookie, his voice slightly raspy, his cheekbones chiseled, his smile bright, has pulled in four interceptions over the last three games. His six for the season — more than Ty Law or Asante Samuel, New England’s last great corners, had in their first seasons — are two behind Mike Haynes’s team rookie record of eight.

Mike Haynes is in the Hall of Fame.

Now, this isn’t to say that the sculptors in Canton should be starting work on McCourty’s bronze bust. It is to say, however, that he is a heck of a lot more than a special teamer competing for time in nickel and dime sets.

He heard the evaluators — a “yeah’’ is followed by a slight snort when he’s asked about them — but McCourty paid them no mind. That’s their job, he reasoned.

And now that he’s proving them wrong?

“They might still think that,’’ he said, only half-joking.

Regardless of whether others thought McCourty was rough around the edges, the Patriots believe they found a gem. McCourty started the first game of the season at left cornerback and has been there every game since; he has missed just four of more than 850 defensive snaps to this point.

“He doesn’t seem like a rookie,’’ said safety James Sanders. “He’s real intelligent, works hard. You would think he’s a five-year vet. He’s going out there and making plays and he’s playing like a veteran.

“First day I was out there on the field with him, I realized how smart he was on top of being a great player and how hard he worked and I knew he was going to be a big player for us this year.’’

Almost all of McCourty’s interceptions have come in key situations.

In Detroit on Thanksgiving, his third-quarter pick (one of two he had on the day), turned the tide in New England’s favor, and a close game became a rout.

Against the Jets last week, he collected the second of Mark Sanchez’s three interceptions, the one that effectively closed the door on any chance of a New York comeback.

In San Diego, he showed his ability to track the ball and flashed his ball skills on another deep pass when he jumped at just the right time and came down inbounds.

“Devin’s really been a consistent player for us all year,’’ coach Bill Belichick said recently. “He’s really the same guy every day: very alert, attentive, very professional. You wouldn’t know he’s a rookie. He acts and prepares like he’s been doing it for five or six years.

“He’s made a lot of improvement. We see him doing things now that he wasn’t doing in October. We saw him doing things in September that he wasn’t doing in August, and that’s really a great feeling to have as a coach.

“But I think it’s also great for him as a player. He’s a great kid to coach.’’

One of the things Belichick has mentioned several times this season is McCourty’s ability to break down film and know not only his responsibility on every play but his teammates’ as well.

It helps the secondary a great deal, said Sanders, “because he always knows what to do, so even if a safety doesn’t give him a call, there’s never a breakdown in our defense because for the most part the safeties have to communicate with everyone, give everyone the calls — especially on that back end.

“But if something comes up, a crazy formation or a crazy look for us, he knows what to do as well as the safety so he can go out there and communicate with everybody.’’

“It lets you know where your help is,’’ McCourty explained. “Certain things that happen in a game sometimes that aren’t on film and you’ve just got to play your rules. It helps to know where other guys are because none of you have seen the play.’’

McCourty developed his Roger Ebert-like eye for film at Rutgers, but says he’s gotten better this season and can get better still. He has seen the advantage it can give him on the field, that the knowledge he gleans from it means he can play more off instinct and not have to think on every play.

Sometimes during games, he feels as though he’s watching a replay, because a play turns out just as he expected it to after watching on film.

Funny that for all the film the draft experts devoured before the draft, few expected a performance like the one McCourty has given thus far.

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.

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