Replacing a future red jacket player is a tall task for the Patriots defense, which is playing without franchise legend Devin McCourty for the first time in 13 seasons.
McCourty leaves a void on the field, in the locker room, and off the field as one of the most well-rounded not only players but human beings in Foxboro. However, following his retirement announcement just before free agency opened in March, McCourty had a message for Patriots fans who wanted to see the team acquire a big-ticket safety in free agency to replace him.
The future Pats Hall of Famer wanted to see the holdovers who were his teammates in the 2022 season get an opportunity to take the mantle from him in the Pats secondary. New England's depth at safety has recently been lauded as one of the deepest position groups on the roster, so having McCourty support his former teammates makes sense. Rather than leaning on one player, the Patriots are working to replace McCourty by committee.
However, McCourty took it a step further, adding that the new-look Patriots safety group could be even better without him. Those are lofty expectations, but in the early going this spring, we're already seeing the mixing and matching that McCoury referenced as a strength.
Along with the three safeties McCourty mentioned in his tweet, New England is rotating at safety to fill those big McCourty-sized shoes. Veteran defensive back Jalen Mills is moving from corner to safety, third-year DB Joshuah Bledsoe is in the mix, and rookie hybrid linebacker Marte Mapu has taken reps at safety and linebacker in the two open OTAs.
Now, the Patriots have several versatile safeties that are similar body types, creating a rotation in the backend that will hopefully keep offenses off-balance. From a communication standpoint, it's a work in progress to replace McCourty's on-field leadership. Physically, though, you can see a blueprint of how New England can spin the dial on quarterbacks.
"We're working a lot of guys in a lot of different positions now, so we'll see how it all plays out. Let them compete, see where the team needs different guys, and see how it goes," head coach Bill Belichick told reporters on Tuesday. "We want to give players an opportunity to learn multiple spots. I think that helps them understand the overall system, but also gives them a chance to compete at different spots."
As he enters his fourth season, Kyle Dugger is an ascending player in the secondary who had three defensive touchdowns last season in a breakout campaign. Dugger is trying to keep the arrow pointing upward heading into the final year of his rookie deal while also taking on more of a leadership role and playing more deep safety rather near the line of scrimmage.
"Anybody can be anywhere, so that's definitely something we try to implement and use to our advantage. Mix things up for the quarterback, disguising and things like that," Dugger said after Tuesday's practice. "It makes it difficult for the offense to figure out. It allows us to do a little more with similar body types. You don't know what you're getting all the time from the offense's perspective."
The other big domino to fall is veteran defensive back Jalen Mills transitioning from corner to safety. Mills played over 76 percent of his snaps at outside corner in his first two seasons in Foxboro. With first-rounder Christian Gonzalez likely a plug-and-play starter on the boundary, it frees Mills to work at multiple spots this season.
In his final season with the Eagles in 2020, Mills transitioned to a hybrid role where he played over 51% of his snaps at either box or free safety, with 20.7% at outside corner and 16.7% of his snaps over the slot as one of the NFL's most versatile defensive backs.
Speaking for the first time since learning that he'll play some safety this season, Mills's role might resemble the do-it-all mentality that many initially projected he would play in Bill Belichick's defense. Mills has taken reps at both free safety and the star/slot role this spring.
"It's been good, man. Getting some really good coaching tips from the coaches. Just trying to go out there and execute at a really high level," Mills said. "It gives me the ability to not only show my versatility but be around the ball a little more and make more plays."
Along with the veterans in the room, rookie linebacker Marte Mapu is already fitting in as a hybrid defender. The Pats third-rounder has noticeable instincts and closing speed to make plays in coverage, including an impressively fast would-be tackle on a flat route to the running back out of the backfield in Tuesday's practice. In our first viewing of spring practices last week, Mapu worked with the linebackers and then spent the afternoon with the safeties in Tuesday's session.
Mapu is bringing the sideline-to-sideline speed that the Patriots defense has been missing out of the gate. Plus, Belichick is at his best as a defensive coach finding ways for versatile defenders to make an impact, and the rookie is the latest chess piece that could contribute in multiple spots in his first season, at least in the passing game.
Over the years, the Patriots have always rotated coverages to confuse opponents. Still, the Pats played single-high safety coverage at the third-highest rate in the NFL last season and were fifth in man coverage rate, per NextGen Stats. Head coach Bill Belichick's defense is a single-high coverage system, making McCourty's centerfield role vital.
Although it remains to be seen if they'll shift the scheme without a pure deep safety in the McCourty mold, the Patriots are already showing different coverage structures to their quarterbacks, using similar body types in various spots to force the offense to adjust on the fly.
The Patriots have a long way to go before we can declare the season after Devin McCourty's retirement a successful transition at the safety position – a long, long way to go.
Despite all the caveats, early returns suggest McCourty's theory that the secondary could be less predictable without him will be accurate.