New England Patriots 53-man 2018 Roster Projection v1.0: Safety
By Hal Bent
As we get closer to the start of the season, here is how the New England Patriots might look at the safety position.
As we head through the roster Part 11 of 12 continues with a look at the seemingly settled safety position:
Starter(s): Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon
Back-up(s): David Jones, Brandon King, Nate Ebner
Roster Bubble Boy(s): Jordan Richards, Damarius Travis
Like the wide receiver and cornerback positions, the safety position is deep and talented and should be a spirited battle during training camp for key back-up and special teams roles. Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung top the depth chart again together for the fifth straight season. Both will be 31 this season and New England will need to start thinking of the future at safety.
The Patriots passed on safeties in the NFL Draft despite some intriguing prospects available in the middle rounds. New England also has (to date) not bit on any free agent safeties despite three intriguing players still available. New England –along with 31 other franchises–has shown no interest in Kenny Vaccaro, Eric Reid or Tre Boston. Boston is an excellent coverage safety and is only 25 years old. Reid has had injury issues and is likely being ostracized for his national anthem views just like Colin Kaepernick. Vaccaro is 27 years old but is multi-faceted like Chung and able to fill multiple roles in the secondary.
Of course, New England already has over $19 million in cap space going to safeties McCourty, Chung and Duron Harmon in 2018 (per OvertheCap.com). McCourty should get a boost in his play with his twin brother Jason in the secondary with him for the first time since college. Chung and McCourty both struggled the last time we saw them in Super Bowl 52 as Philadelphia attacked the duo with slot receiver Nelson Agholor, tight end Zach Ertz and running back Corey Clement in the middle of the field.
Harmon is basically a full-time player as he was on the field for 66% of the snaps on defense last year. He is paid like a starter and his ability to cover sideline to sideline in the deep center of the field allows New England to use McCourty in different ways and to deploy Chung closer to the line of scrimmage.
The Battle for the Back-up Roles:
While most teams carry four or five safeties, because of special teams play the Patriots will likely carry six. That means Brandon King, Nate Ebner, Jordan Richards, David Jones and Damarius Travis are fighting for three spots.
Richards, King and Ebner are essential special teams players but none of the three belong on the field with the defensive unit. An injury to Harmon, McCourty or Chung would result in New England having to change their entire defense as none of the three are capable of playing regular snaps. Richards has played the most snaps of the trio on defense but has been exposed seemingly every time he steps foot on the field.
Richards is entering the final year of his rookie deal and in three years has yet to carve out a meaningful role outside of special teams. A surprising second round draft pick after being projected in the middle rounds, Richards fits the Patriots profile of being smart with quickness rather than speed. He may just be buried behind the more talented Chung, or he may just be another bad second round draft pick.
New England needs a safety who can contribute on defense as depth at the position. David Jones and Damarius Travis are both practice squad players for 2017 who should be in the competition with Richards, King and Ebner for a final roster spot.
Travis is a strong safety with excellent size and physicality. He is not athletic and does not have the speed necessary to play safety in the NFL. He could fit as a special teams contributor if injuries knocked out King or Ebner in the 2013 preseason.
Jones came from FCS school Richmond last year and was a standout in training camp. He had dropped from the draft due to having broke his forearm as a senior and did not get a chance to show his value. Jones is tall (six-foot-three) and coupled with his impressive athleticism he stood out on the practice field. He missed time in camp due to injury allowing the Patriots to stash him on the practice squad.
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I figure King and Ebner should return with their solid special teams play to join McCourty, Harmon and Chung. That leaves one spot for Travis, Jones, and Richards to battle over. Last year, I had bought into the David Jones hype and had on the 53-man roster–I see no reason not to double down and have this be the year that Patriots fans get their wish and see the team move on from Richards.