The New England Patriots made plenty of moves in both free agency and the 2013 NFL Draft to shore up a defense that frankly hasn’t been good enough to get them over the top in the post season the past few years.

One particular area that has been a thorn in the side of the defense has been the middle of the field and the team consistently struggled to cover tight ends and running backs going between the hash marks. The team allowed 176 receptions for 1767 yards to tight ends and running backs last season, that will have to change. But the additions to the team as well as added experience at the safety position should help this off-season.


Safety Devin McCourty will be called upon to anchor the secondary in 2013. (FILE:USPresswire)

Early in 2012 the Patriots played a lot of zone Cover-2 with the safeties playing deep and were victimized by poor communication, blown assignments and at times poor play and worse angles. With the addition of Aqib Talib and the emergence of rookie Alfonzo Dennard at cornerback, it allowed the team to move Devin McCourty to free safety and things began to improve.

The Patriots began to play more man coverage with just McCourty covering center field and the outside as well as the communication in the back end was very much improved. But with the lack of a true SS (Steve Gregory played out of position there) the team still struggled in the middle of the field.

While the linebacker position shares in that problem, the team added some quality depth at safety this off-season and it should (on paper) go a long way to alleviating their issues in the middle of the field. Adrian Wilson the long-time Cardinals vet and 5 time Pro-Bowler was signed and will immediately bring the physical “in-the-box” presence at strong safety.

The immediate thing that stands out about Wilson is his size, at 6’3, 230, Wilson can still bring the lumber to support the rush defense and as a SS in man coverage or Cover-1. Wilson is physical enough to jam the TEs coming off the line and provide that type of intimidation factor at safety the Patriots haven’t had in quite some time.

The biggest question on Wilson is if he still has the wheels to keep up in the passing game. But as an established veteran presence, the younger players in the secondary can certainly learn a lot from playing next to him. The Patriots contract with him is certainly not a big one and although he’ll have to earn his spot in camp, I think depending upon how that goes, he could be the starter out of the gate.

The team is really looking for 2nd year player Tavon Wilson to step up and play more like the ball hawking safety he did in the first few weeks of 2012 than he did during the middle of the season where he was picked on with the deep ball and was out of position at other times.

Wilson the younger was the surprise pick in the 2012 NFL Draft and the team reportedly is very high on him. They would eventually like to see him take over the starting role at SS opposite McCourty But for this season, I think he can come in and play that “money” position in the Patriots dime sub-packages and replace Adrian Wilson on third downs and play the other deep safety in the Patriots Cover-2.

Steve Gregory played out of position for much of the year last season, as he’s not really big enough to play a true SS role and both he and McCourty didn’t give the Patriots the size needed at the safety position to take on TEs and support the running game. Gregory had an up-and-down season in 2012, at times making some big plays and at others taking poor angles and being caught out of position.

He could find himself this season could be a cap casualty but where the team doesn’t have another  veteran FS on the roster he can back-up McCourty or play beside him as a sub-package deep safety in the Cover-2. Right now on our early roster projection, we have him staying put.

The Patriots caused another stir in the 2013 NFL Draft by what many consider reaching for another safety, Rutgers standout Duron Harmon. Harmon has the versatility to play both the FS and SS positions and frequently did both with the Scarlet Knights.

It will be interesting to see where Harmon fits in the Patriots scheme, the 6’1, 200 lb rookie but I think he’d best fit as trying to win the back-up position opposite McCourty and be able to fill in at SS in a pinch. NFL Film’s Greg Cosell stated that “I really liked his playing personality. And I thought his play recognition – which is something I guarantee Bill Belichick noticed – and his quick, decisive reactions were really a positive.”  Cosell added that Harmon played a lot of man coverage against tight ends in the slot, so he has that versatility that Belichick likes in his safeties.

Last year’s 6th round draft pick Nate Ebner is more of a special teams performer and did that actually very well last year. He did play some and if he can develop into a back-up safety who can be relied upon it would be a plus. But for now his value remains on STs.

UDFA safety Kanorris Davis was an undersized LB at Troy. He projects to be a SS in the NFL and he will fight it out to carve out a role as the “money” player on defense but has a lot of ground to jump to make the roster.

As we mentioned earlier, part of the responsibility for covering the tight ends and running backs also falls on the linebackers. With the return of Dane Fletcher and the addition of Jamie Collins and Steve Beauharnais, as well as the maturation of 2nd year player Dont’a Hightower, the team is hoping that will help address that as well. And we’ll cover that area of the defense soon in another post.

But the Patriots have increased their depth at the safety position by bringing in Harmon in the draft and adding Wilson via free agency, coupled with an added year of experience of Tavon Wilson, they feel now that their woes in the middle of the field are now answered. Will they be? Stay tuned…Training camp starts in around 60 days and we’ll be there to report on it all.

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