If you slice Devin McCourty’s production any number of ways using either a numerical or visual analysis there is no way to say he had anything but a down year. McCourty had fewer tackles, passes defended, and interceptions in 2014 than in any of the preceding three seasons. If you watched his play, you saw a player who was content to make the plays in front of him, while not letting plays happen behind him.
There are two ways to look at a player who performs like that: the first is to say, well it’s a good thing that a safety isn’t called on to be you team’s leading tackler, because if he is, you are allowing too many plays down the field. Also, you want to make sure that big plays are not happening behind you.
The second way to look at it is to say that you want your safeties to make impact plays, to come up and stuff the run, to be the over the top help on the deep ball, to have ball-hawking instincts, to be leaders who lead with their play making ability. I guess I have just described Rodney Harrison. And maybe that’s the problem. Pats fans were spoiled by Harrison’s consistently impactful play and neither he, nor his presence, have been replaced. McCourty may be a victim of a system where the coaches are coaching the guys they have rather and putting them into schemes where the have an opportunity to succeed. Or maybe, the system is too conservative, waiting for the opponents to make a mistake. Maybe that system will get carved up by a Peyton Manning on a day when he is unmolested and in rhythm. Maybe the system is good enough to win the AFC East, but not the big prize.
The Patriots cannot cut Steve Gregory fast enough. Watching him play last year was an exercise in frustration. How many times was Gregory tardy with help on pass plays? How many bad angles did he take? The only problem with cutting Gregory and saving a couple of million is cap money is who is his replacement? This is, however, a risk New England should be willing to take. They can find a less-expensive player to not make plays.
Could Duron Harmon be that guy? In his limited playing time he showed flashes of ability and instinct - the two things Gregory sorely lacks. They spent a third round pick on him and their confidence on his ability grew as the season progressed. Numbers-wise, he was a solid tackler who had two interceptions, which were essentially overthrows that landed against his chest. I think he will move into Gregory’s spot and there will be no drop off; more likely, there will be an early upgrade that will be come a significant one by the end of 2014.
Tavon Wilson was a waste of a second round pick. There is NO other way to say that. Players taken after Wilson (who, it seems, nobody but one other mystery team had rated that highly) in the second round were Kendall Reyes, the very next pick, tackling machine Lavonte David, and Ruben Randle. Granted, Wilson did have three tackles and an interception this year, so he did contribute.
Nate Ebner is just a special teams guy. While he was a cool story coming out of Ohio State as a former rugby player with the nickname Leonidas, he has shown nothing that would indicate that he would develop as a safety.
If you watched any of the exhibition season or any of training camp, you saw that Adrian Wilson looked like a guy at the end of the line who didn’t want to hit any longer. All defensive players must reach that point some time, where their body is battered and the idea of slamming into a running back, wide receiver, or worse, a 300-pound offensive lineman is something they choose not to do any longer. Wilson looked like he was there last summer. Maybe he has regained the desire to hit. His cap hit of one million is not prohibitive and he should definitely get a courtesy look in the spring.
Free Agent they should pursue: Assuming the real possibility that Jarius Byrd will be franchised the pursuit of TJ Ward should be a priority. Yes that TJ Ward - the man who ended Gronk’s season. That dark day against the Pats, Ward was the best defensive player on the field. Since I didn’t watch too many Browns games, that’s all I have to go on. He will cost some money, but he is well worth the investment. He is a play maker - something the safety position lacks sorely.
Player they should target in the draft: If they want to gamble their first round pick on a safety, the pick should be Calvin Pryor of Louisville. He is a big (6’2”, 208) playmaker who can be used to cover tight ends - a sore spot for the Pats. With the prospect of both Buffalo and the Jets using their first round picks on guys they want to be the next Gronk, a player like Pryor is vital to have on the team. He’s fast and he hits like a sledgehammer; in other words, he’s a significant upgrade over what they have as a second safety.