New England Patriots: Training Camp Battles to Watch

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Dec 22, 2013; Baltimore, MD, USA; Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Marlon Brown (14) has the ball knocked away by New England Patriots defensive back Duron Harmon (30) and cornerback Kyle Arrington (25) at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Free safety Devin McCourty has transformed himself from a Pro Bowl cornerback to a Pro Bowl free safety in just a year-and-a-half at the position. In 2013 rated McCourty as the top safety overall in the NFL. Where New England had issues in the secondary last year was at strong safety where veteran Steve Gregory often struggled in pass coverage and did not have the size or strength to be an enforcer in the running game or in the middle of the field.

Despite an expectation of drafting or signing a big safety this offseason after Gregory was released, the Patriots did not make a move. Instead the position looks to be a battle between the returning strong safety Patrick Chung after a year in Philadelphia and recent high draft picks Duron Harmon (third-round 2013) and Tavon Wilson (second-round 2012).  While there has been much speculation of cornerback Logan Ryan or Brandon Browner moving to strong safety, neither has played at the position before.

Harmon had a strong rookie season in 2013 as he earned playing time in the second half of the season. Head coach Bill Belichick occasionally speaks of his desire to have versatile safeties to play a side of the field each as “left” and “right” rather than “free” and “strong”safeties in his defense. At six-foot-one and 200 pounds Harmon fits this profile for Belichick. His strength is in coverage like McCourty and his strong ball skills and ability to react to the ball in the air makes him an intriguing partner for McCourty at the back of the defense.

Tavon Wilson was a surprise draft pick in 2012 startling the draft analysts when taken with the 48th overall selection. Wilson had an impressive rookie season in 2012 starting four games and providing a physical force in the secondary. At six-foot and 205 pounds Wilson is a hard-hitter who punished receivers and was strong in stopping the running game. Injuries slowed him early in 2013 and he got buried behind Gregory and Harmon playing only 19 snaps on defense.

Finally, Patrick Chung returns as the prodigal son at strong safety after signing with Philadelphia and his college coach at Oregon Chip Kelly. Chung was a 2009 second-round pick by the Patriots and he teased fans and coaches alike with his hard-hitting and inconsistent play. Last season he struggled in Philadelphia while playing free safety. In New England, Chung had the most success at strong safety playing near the line of scrimmage.

With Chung, Wilson, Harmon and possibly Browner and Ryan all in the competition for the safety role next to McCourty, the back end of the defense will have a spirited training camp competition this summer in Foxborough, MA..