The new NFL league year begins Wednesday, March 15, and with it, the advent of 2023's free agency marketplace. Leading up to that day, we'll examine the landscape from a Patriots perspective. Today, we analyze the safeties.
NOTABLE EXTERNAL FREE AGENTS: Jessie Bates (CIN), Jordan Poyer (BUF), Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (PHI), Duron Harmon (LV), Logan Ryan (TB).
Safety has been one of the deepest position groups of recent years but there are significant questions facing them this season as Devin McCourty announced his retirement. The long-time Patriots champion and leader has been critical to the fabric of the team and his departure leaves a significant hole on the back end of the defense.
Despite good depth with Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips under contract, there is no one that knows the defense like McCourty, nor is there a rangy free safety that could take over those duties immediately. That means free safety could be on the menu during free agency this offseason.
Jabrill Peppers is like Dugger and Phillips as primarily a box safety but he brought some thump in 2022, playing 35 percent of the defensive snaps. Even if he's a bit redundant as far as strong safeties go, Peppers plays with an aggressive streak that should be welcomed back unless he's looking to maximize his play time in a system less reliant on so many safeties. Josh Bledsoe showed some promise last season in training camp and is another strong safety type. His potential development could be a wild card here, at least as far as retaining Peppers goes.
Let's shy away from the strong safety types then and focus more on possibilities on the back end. Jessie Bates and Jordan Poyer are the highlights of the group, while Chauncey Gardner-Johnson is just 25 and coming off a solid season. All are likely to cash in with significant deals this offseason.
If the Patriots wanted to tap the well of old friends, Duron Harmon is an easy fit at free safety, while Logan Ryan could also be a possibility. Harmon has broken 1,000 snaps in each of his last three seasons at free safety and at 32 years old could be an ideal stopgap post-McCourty for a couple years.
McCourty's retirement adds some significant questions to the offseason. His knowledge of the defense and experience in the system are impossible to replace and his skillset is not one that comes cheaply. Perhaps the "safest" route would be to secure someone like Harmon then look to the draft for a developmental centerfielder with range and plus communication skills.
The high-end free agents are tempting but are there other positions in more critical need of reinforcement? Free safety has been a position that has been locked down for nearly every snap of the last 10 years and there's no easy answer on how to turn the page.