By: Steve Balestrieri
With Free Agency slated to begin in less than a week the New England Patriots have some holes to fill especially on the defensive side of the ball. The re-signing of CB Aqib Talib or bringing in another corner, interior defensive line, depth at DE with an edge rusher and added depth at linebacker are all needs that will have to be addressed. But now of added importance is the Strong Safety position with Steve Gregory having been released a week ago.
Gregory really played out of position at SS; he was more of a FS type but was considered a smart, dependable leader. Gregory was considered by his peers to be a coach on the field, especially for the younger players. With his departure a starting position is now open next to Devin McCourty.
Current Roster: McCourty, Duron Harmon, Adrian Wilson, Tavon Wilson, Nate Ebner, Kanorris Davis
For at least the time being, the starter’s job would fall to last season’s surprise 3rd round pick in the NFL Draft, in Harmon who has good size at 6’1, 205 who was considered a QB for the defense at Rutgers but a reach that early in the draft. Harmon played well in his rookie season and may end up being the guy who gets the majority of the snaps.
Last season the team signed Adrian Wilson to a 3 year deal hoping he’d be that big in the box physical presence that they’ve lacked since Rodney Harrison left town. Wilson was expected to play the “Money” position in sub-packages, replacing a linebacker. But he suffered an injury early and never made it out of training camp. Now with his age (34) a factor, he may be cut prior to camp starting.
Tavon Wilson was another surprise pick, during the 2nd round of the 2012 NFL Draft and played a good amount as a rookie but he fell far down the depth chart in 2013 and barely saw the field. He’ll need a strong training camp to stick in 2014. Ebner is more of a special teams’ presence and won’t be counted on to play many snaps on defense.
Noted Free Agents Available: Some of the bigger names out there in include Jarius Byrd, T.J. Ward, Donte’ Whitner, Chris Clemons, Louis Delmas, Ryan Clark and James Ihedigbo.
Byrd from the Bills along with Ward are perhaps the two most sought after free agent safeties in the league. Ward would provide the Patriots with the best fit in terms of positional need but in speaking with ESPN’s Mike Reiss on Thursday night, he made the point that with McCourty’s contract coming up in 2015, the Patriots traditionally don’t like to spend a lot of money on one position.
Jarius Byrd is the top safety available in free agency, and since entering the league no one has more interceptions or forced fumbles from the safety position. But Byrd is looking for a reported $9 million a year, which would put him far out of the realm for New England.
T.J. Ward is a hard hitter who would provide a strong physical presence in the box and very good coverage skills in the secondary. He made 112 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 interceptions and 1 touchdown in 2013. He’s only 27 which would give him quite a few years of play left in him but he too will command a hefty price tag this spring.
Donte Whitner is a big physical hitter at the SS positon and would easily provide that presence the Patriots require in the box and in the middle of the field where he’s terrorized opponents since joining the 49ers. After a bad 2012 in coverage however, Whitner rebounded with a fantastic 2013, ranking 6th among safeties by Pro Football Focus. His price tag as well is expected to be beyond the Pats ability to pay and his age (29) by opening day, may preclude a longer term deal.
Chris Clemons presents an interesting case as a player with the fit; he’s 6’1, 215, is only 28 with really limited wear on his body as he was a role player for his first two years in Miami and would be considered as a “second-tier” player in terms of cost.
Clemons won’t break the bank in terms of asking price and the Patriots having faced him twice a year in the AFC East divisional games would have a much better feel for him as a player and how he’d be used in the defense.
Clemons has legitimate 4.3 speed which will aid him in the back end of the secondary and Pro Football Focus had Clemons as the 9th best safety for 2013. His only downside is that although he has the size to be a physical presence in the box, he hasn’t fared particularly well against the run with 14 missed tackles and isn’t considered a ball-hawk. He had eight passes defensed with only one interception in 2013.
NFL Draft Possibilities: The safety position in this year’s NFL Draft has some top-tier talent but falls away quickly. Two of the top safeties available are Alabama’s Clinton HaHa Dix and Louisville’s Calvin Pryor both of whom are free safeties and may end up as first round picks and gone before the Patriots pick.
One interesting player to watch will be Washington State’s Deone Buchanan who is big at 6’1, 212 and has a knack for making huge hits in the secondary. With a 4.49 time in the 40, Buchanan has good straight line speed but is a bit stiff-hipped which may hinder him in coverage. Buchanan projects to be an early to mid-second or third round draft pick which begs the question; will the Patriots invest in another early round pick for the third year in a row? I say no.
Some players who may be available in the mid to later rounds in the draft include Jimmie Ward from Northern Illinois, Ahmad Dixon from Baylor, Craig Loston from LSU and a late riser, Brock Vereen from Minnesota, brother of the Patriots Shane.
This is one position that will bear some watching as the team has some decisions to make, will they stick with Harmon whom they thought enough of to draft in the 3rd round last season and who played a significant amount of snaps (433) as a rookie, or bring in a veteran free agent and/or dip in the draft again.
While most fans would love to see a Ward or a Whitner here in 2014, those chances are pretty remote. If the Patriots do dip into free-agency they may target Clemons who will come much cheaper and is better known among the coaching staff.
Don’t be shocked if they stand pat with Harmon however and maybe add a late draft pick to add some depth at the position. The priority for the secondary will probably be to re-sign Talib at corner or replace him with another veteran as a Plan B and make do with the Pro Bowler in McCourty and the 2nd year Harmon. Let the speculation begin….