The New England Patriots open training camp on July 24. To get you ready, we will go through the roster position by position, highlighting the story lines, battles, and key players. We continue with the safety position.
Devin McCourty has locked down the starting free safety spot, and is emerging into one of the premier safeties in the NFL. Opposite him, however, the Patriots have a bit of a void. The starting strong safety spot appears to be Duron Harmon's to lose, but former starters Patrick Chung and Tavon Wilson could be in the mix for snaps as well.
Patrick Chung: Brought back after a year with the Philadelphia Eagles, Patrick Chung was once an integral part of the Patriots secondary, lining up all over the defense as a free safety, strong safety and even a cornerback during his first four years in the league. The 5-foot-11, 210-pound safety got off to a solid start to his career, but seemed to regress toward the end, taking poor angles to the ball and giving up big plays over his head in deep coverage. He was always a presence on special teams, though, and was regarded as a high-character individual.
Nate Ebner: The Patriots drafted the former Ohio State rugby standout in the sixth round in 2012. The 6-foot, 202-pound safety had an amazing performance at Ohio State's pro day in 2012 (4.55-second 40-yard dash, 23 bench press reps, 39-inch vertical, 6.59-second three-cone drill), but as was the case in Ebner's Ohio State football career, his primary responsibilities have been on special teams.
Duron Harmon: The Patriots continued a legacy of drafting Rutgers defensive backs with the selection of Duron Harmon in the third round in 2013. Harmon started off in a very small role, but his role increased when former Patriots safety Steve Gregory suffered a thumb injury that kept him out a couple weeks; he played all 90 snaps of New England's overtime victory against the Denver Broncos. His high football IQ allows him to quickly diagnose route combinations, and he has great first-step quickness to begin closing on the pass before it gets to the receiver, giving him a chance to knock the ball out when he arrives.
Devin McCourty: Devin McCourty's career took a different path than anyone could have anticipated when the Patriots drafted him in the first round of the 2010 draft as a cornerback out of Rutgers. No one is complaining now, though, as McCourty continues to prove he belongs in the upper echelon of safeties in the NFL. His instincts, break on the ball, ball skills, quick hips, and an ability to run backwards almost as fast as forwards have made him the perfect candidate for the Cover 1 role as the lone deep safety. McCourty enters a contract year in 2014, and could be in line for a nice pay day — whether it's to stay in New England or go elsewhere.
Tavon Wilson: The Patriots used a second-round pick on Tavon Wilson in 2012, shocking many people by using such a high pick on a relative unknown who had not been invited to the scouting combine. Wilson played 465 defensive snaps as a rookie, according to stats website Football Outsiders, but just 17 snaps in 2013. He had some struggles in deep coverage as a rookie, which may have led to his reduced role. His 6-foot, 215-pound frame lends itself more to a role as an in-the-box linebacker-type role than one where he is asked to defend the long ball.
Others: Kanorris Davis, Justin Green, Shamiel Gary
1. Devin McCourty
2. Duron Harmon
3. Patrick Chung
4. Tavon Wilson
5. Nate Ebner *
6. Justin Green *
7. Kanorris Davis *
8. Shamiel Gary *
* = projected cut
Wilson and Ebner appear poised for a battle for the fourth spot at safety. Wilson gets the edge for now because he is more experienced on defense, but the Patriots preferred Ebner to Wilson on special teams last year (Ebner had 325 special teams snaps, Wilson had 253, according to Football Outsiders). That being said, neither Ebner nor Wilson have shown remarkable improvement in their two years in the league, so the light could be green for someone like Green, Davis or Gary to usurp Ebner and Wilson in that battle.