The New England Patriots picked up a new starting strong safety in free agency, as they signed former Arizona Cardinals star and fan favorite Adrian Wilson, who is coming off of a down year. If he is declining due to age, then it has been a rapid decline, because he had an incredible 2011 campaign in which he was still one of the elite safeties in the league. The Cardinals viewed Wilson as a player who could no longer cover, and he was benched after one poor performance. His coverage grade on the Pro Football Focus, however, is positive, and I have a feeling the Cardinals put too much stock into one game and a few plays in which he was burned. It is true that he has lost a step and will get burned, but Wilson was excellent, as usual, on underneath routes.
I bring up Wilson, because he is charged to be the new starting SS in New England, and it will be interesting to see how the Patriots use him. Patrick Chung was an oft-injured player who was also burned plenty, but he also had the hard-hitting ability to be an enforcer and the tackling to be a solid run defender. Wilson is in the same boat, and his performances so far this offseason seem to indicate that he hasn’t declined just yet. The Patriots gave him a three-year deal, so that had better be the case. We’ll see if things change once the pads come on, but I like Wilson as an upgrade over Chung and Steve Gregory, who I believe will end up being cut in a crowded safety situation.
What is even more interesting than Wilson’s expected performance is how the New England Patriots utilize their safeties in the box. According to numbers released by the Pro Football Focus’s Neil Hornsby, the Patriots have the third-lowest percentage of using their safeties in the box on rushing plays at 23%. The Cardinals? They had the highest.
This seems to prove the notion that the Patriots don’t have strict roles for a free safety and strong safety as we know it (free plays in deep coverage, strong in the box), and maybe that’s why Bill Belichick loves cornerbacks who are strong in run defense. Aqib Talib, Kyle Arrington, and the recently drafted Logan Ryan are examples of corners who play the run effectively, and that has a way of mitigating the need for placing the strong safety in the box.
My opinion is that the Patriots don’t use specific FS and SS roles, but that they do lean towards wanting a free safety who excels in coverage (Devin McCourty certainly does) and a strong safety who is more of an enforcer who can cover tight ends and successfully cover those pesky underneath routes. But versatility is key, and the Patriots value flexibility as much as any other team in this league. For instance, we know that McCourty can also play the run when called upon, but it will be interesting to see if Wilson can do the same.
One thing that does play into this lack of a defined in-the-box role for the SS is the fact that the Patriots have drafted safeties in back-to-back years who can play as an FS or SS in Tavon Wilson and Duron Harmon. Both are smart players, steady tacklers, and Wilson is a guy who can excel covering TEs as a “money” linebacker. If you follow this site closely, then you know that I am a huge fan of Wilson’s and lukewarm on Harmon. However, the common thread between them is that I can feasibly see them playing at either position, and I feel like the Patriots want that out of the two young backups especially; players who can fill in on either side.
The Pats don’t have as much of a demand for their safeties to play in-the-box anyway, and that is the most important thing to remember. This is a team that is elite against the run with excellent run-defending CBs, a great group of linebackers that features two upper-echelon run-stuffers in Brandon Spikes and Jerod Mayo, a team that has Vince Wilfork at DT, and a team with a great duo of run-stuffing DEs in Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich.