Collectively the safety position was the worst unit for the Patriots in 2011 and most in need of both an injection of starting talent as well as quality depth. Have the Patriots done enough to shore up the position?
The Patriots did add former San Diego Charger Steve Gregory in free agency, and he is penciled in to start alongside Patrick Chung. At the bare minimum Gregory almost has to be an upgrade over what Pats fans witnessed at the position from Josh Barrett, Sergio Brown and James Ihedigbo. Chung is in a contract year and when he was healthy enough to be on the field the unit was noticeably more productive. Gregory’s strength is pass coverage, which makes him a nice complimentary player to Chung.
Pats fans are looking for an injury-free season for Patrick Chung
The Patriots also drafted Tavon Wilson, but relying on a rookie who was not one of the top twenty or thirty picks overall is a dicey proposition. Chung missed eight games last year and ten over the last two seasons. Injuries are an inevitable reality in the NFL and to me my concern is not so much the starting talent, but the depth at the unit if or when an injury should occur.
The pats re-signed Ihedigbo who showed lots of heart but seems to have a limited ceiling in my opinion. He battled through a shoulder injury but appears to me to be a guy who, like Brown, should only be on the field for special teams. Barrett won the starting job out of camp, but didn’t really impress before going on injured reserve with a calf injury. Aside from not really standing out with their play, it’s difficult to overlook the durability issues of this group.
Perhaps when the inevitable injury strikes the Patriots would want consider fielding another cornerback such as Sterling Moore or Will Allen rather than calling on one of the reserve safeties this year. Pass coverage was a major issue and a speedier corner may be something to consider. Moore in particular would be an candidate to consider in this role, having previously played safety on occasion. Even though the two are the same size Moore is younger, and Allen has not been particularly strong in run support.
Gregory, Wilson and Chung are virtual locks to make the 53-man roster, barring of course an unforeseen training camp injury. I would expect the Pats to keep four or perhaps five safeties on the roster. That means that Barrett, Brown, Ihedigbo, Ross Ventrone and rookie Nate Ebner are competing for one, maybe two roster spots.
At first glance Ihedigbo would appear to have the inside edge for one slot based on a combination of his special teams contributions and the fact that though he did not excel at safety, he still out-performed his competition on the field. When the Patriots signed special teams ace Marquice Cole I felt Ihedigbo’s return might be in jeopardy but if pressed to play defense Cole is a corner, not a safety. Ihedigbo may be nothing more than average at best, but as of right now he’s better than any alternative.
So assuming that Ihedigbo joins Gregory, Wilson and Chung on the roster, then who from that group might make the roster? Ebner is raw and in no way can he be counted on to field the position if pressed into duty. Ventrone is another special team specialist with a low ceiling, and the Pats already have plenty of those. Barrett seems to be injury prone and if the Pats are looking to save a little bit of cap space he would be a candidate to be cut. Here is a look at the 2012 cap figures for each of the defensive backs on the roster, followed by the cap savings if they are released.
Cap Figure …… Cap Savings …. Player
$2,150,000 — $1,950,000 —- Kyle Arrington
$1,743,120 — (-$1,691,880) — Devin McCourty
$1,683,333 — (-$816,667) —– Steve Gregory
$1,205,477 — (-$1,530,141) — Ras-I Dowling
$1,173,120 — $673,120 ——– Patrick Chung
$1,133,120 — $1,008,120 —– Josh Barrett
$766,888 —- (-$1,712,386) — Tavon Wilson
$655,000 —– $630,000 ——- Marquice Cole
$605,000 —– $580,000 ——- James Ihedigbo
$590,000 —– $565,000 ——- Will Allen
$557,828 —– $538,409 ——– Sergio Brown
$473,120 —– $473,120 ——– Ross Ventrone
$465,000 —– $465,000 ——– Sterling Moore
$414,150 —– $317,550 ——– Nate Ebner
$404,462 —– $346,614 ——– Alfonzo Dennard
$390,000 —– $390,000 ——– Malcolm Williams
One final consideration: as the NFL transitions more and more into a pass oriented league, I would think that the coverage skills of a defensive back would become more important while performance against the run would diminish. Corners become more valuable, safeties less valuable. Despite a lot of discussion about a Big Nickel Defense since pass coverage was such a sore spot for the Patriots in 2011, players that can cover – i.e., corners – become more important to the defense and are more likely going to be on the field in nickel and dime situations. And if Chung or Gregory is injured, perhaps the defense would be better off with their being replaced on the field by a Sterling Moore or Will Allen rather than one of the backup safeties. If that is the case then the Pats would enter the season with no more than four safeties, and they would be starters Patrick Chung and Steve Gregory, with Tavon Wilson and James Ihedigbo in reserve.
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