While most of the in-house free agency talk has revolved around J.C. Jackson, the Patriots also have to make a tough decision on another prominent member of its secondary: Devin McCourty.
If the Patriots let Jackson walk, which is where that’s headed, it would be inviting further disaster by letting McCourty leave, too.
My understanding is the Patriots were supposed to hook up with McCourty’s agent, Andy Simms, at the NFL’s Scouting Combine at some point late in the week. Both sides wanted to touch base before things really started to heat up in the days leading up to free agency, which officially commences March 16.
One way or the other, it would behoove the Patriots to re-sign their defensive captain, who is planning on playing in 2022, whether it’s in New England, or someplace else.
While McCourty turns 35 in August, his presence remains vital. Between his smarts and savvy, his ability to direct traffic in the secondary, and veteran leadership, the Patriots would be wise to keep him in the fold, especially since they don’t appear to have plans to keep Jackson on the terms of a one-year tag ($17.3 million).
Solomon Wilcots, a former NFL free safety, agreed.
“Devin McCourty still runs well enough. Certainly if you’re going to have younger corners, and you’re going to replace J.C. Jackson with a rookie, you want that veteran safety back there communicating and reassuring younger defensive backs, ‘this is what we’re doing, this is why we do it, this is how we do it, how we’re going to line up, how we’re going to adjust to shifts and motions,’’’ said Wilcots, the SiriusXM analyst. “Listen, having that kind of brain power is a tremendous asset particularly for a coach like Bill Belichick, who understands that.
“So I wouldn’t be so quick to turn the page on Devin McCourty,” Wilcots went on. “You gotta have him back.”
It should be a top priority for the Patriots on their offseason checklist.
Keeping McCourty in the safety room with Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger allows for that position to continue to be a strength. And having McCourty is imperative if they can’t trust the other corners.
As the deep safety, McCourty is the last line of defense, and with the cornerback situation in flux, it’s no time to dig another hole on the back end. The Patriots played a lot of single-high coverage last season, given their faith in McCourty.
Even if the Patriots somehow manage to keep Jackson if the cornerback market isn’t as robust as he hoped, eliminating the glue guy still doesn’t make a lot of sense.
“Somebody’s gotta keep this thing in order,” said Wilcots, who was on hand for the NFL’s Scouting Combine. “You’ve got to protect against giving up those quick touchdowns.”
The job for the defense as a whole, becomes much more difficult without Jackson, their best man-coverage corner. But losing McCourty, too, would further sabotage the secondary.
In 2021, he had 60 tackles, while also picking off three passes. He played in all 18 games.
The Patriots aren’t likely to give him a raise above the $8 million he made in 2021 given his age, but the guaranteed money in any new deal will be key in terms of being able to retain the longtime defensive captain. They need to extend a little to assure bringing him back.
It’s no secret McCourty would like to finish out his career in New England, where he’s already spent 12 seasons. But if that doesn’t materialize, there will be other suitors looking for a veteran presence in their backfield.
Naturally, the situation would have to be right for McCourty to leave. His brother Jason is in Miami and playing in a familiar system with former Patriot assistant Josh Boyer, who was retained as the defensive coordinator following Brian Flores’ departure. That might have some appeal to McCourty.
Newly-minted Las Vegas duo Dave Ziegler and Josh McDaniels might also make a pitch for some Patriots free agents, with McCourty being high on the list.
So there are other possibilities.
If the Patriots want him back, which they should, and make a decent enough offer, they won’t risk losing another cog in their defensive backfield.
The Patriots are certainly McCourty’s preference. But he’ll consider other options if it comes to that.
Getting back to Jackson, and his situation, the Patriots still have a couple days left before Tuesday’s March 8 franchise tag deadline. It’s still possible for them to work out a tag and trade scenario with a team who needs a top corner, but doesn’t want to get into a bidding war with other teams in free agency.
It just hasn’t happened yet. Either way, the focus needs to shift to McCourty.
Pats offensive staff is ‘scary’
It’s tough to find anyone giving Bill Belichick a thumbs up with respect to how the offensive staff is shaping up with both Matt Patricia and Joe Judge expected to take on larger roles in Mac Jones’ development. Making the rounds at the Combine in Indy, the prevailing thought was largely disbelief.
He didn’t mince words.
“It’s scary. And it’s scary for me because it’s something you don’t expect,” he said. “The one thing the Patriots have always had is really good continuity in their coaching staff. To find themselves in this situation is quite surprising.”
Wilcots isn’t surprised at having turnover, and needing to replace Josh McDaniels, along with the three assistants he took with him to Las Vegas.
It doesn’t quite compute that Belichick wouldn’t have a better plan. The only person with any experience calling offensive plays from the group assembled is Belichick himself, who was the play caller in his early years in Cleveland decades ago.
“When you have a young quarterback going into Year 2, continuity is so important for his growth and elevation,” said Wilcots. “That being said, I really believe they’ll have an answer in the end. But as I’m sitting here right now, it’s scary. It’s not comfortable.”
McDaniels wiser this time around
It took awhile before Josh McDaniels got his next chance at being a head coach, but 13 years after flopping in Denver, the former Patriots offensive coordinator seems more at ease and prepared to make it work.
At the Combine, he told the media his first month on the job in Vegas was much different than when he took charge in Denver. He’s learned a few things, including to rely more on the people around him.
“Having the opportunity to come with Dave (Ziegler). I would say knowing more about what to expect. I don’t think there has been many days where I’ve been shocked or surprised at this point or learning brand new things to me at this point is a little different than what I was 13 years ago.
“I’m at peace with the things that we do each day. I know what my plan is when I wake up in the morning. Really trust the people that are in positions to do their job really well and try to be the best support system I can be to them, while I’m trying to do the best I can at my job.”
During an appearance on The Sports Hub’s Zolak & Bertrand show last month, linebackers coach Jerod Mayo targeted the type of defenders the Patriots wanted to land for the 2022 team.
“We’re going to look to get faster, more explosive, and put more playmakers on the field,” he said. “You always want to get faster, especially in today’s game. That’s at all spots.”
“The game is obviously getting faster. Teams are coming out in ‘11′ personnel, smaller personnel groups, so you have to put more speed on the field to match that.”
To that end, many of the early mock drafts had Georgia’s Nakobe Dean slotted in at No. 21 for the Patriots. He’s certainly fast, explosive, and makes plays and is considered one of the best linebacking prospects in this year’s class.
The problem? He measured 5-foot-9, 229 pounds at the Combine.
Small backers aren’t typically what Bill Belichick is looking for.
At the Combine, the Patriots spoke with many linebacking prospects. None of them were under 6-foot-2.
Case in point, Utah’s Devin Lloyd (6-3, 235 pounds), Georgia’s Quay Walker (6-4, 240 pounds), USC’s Drake Jackson (6-4, 250 pounds), Alabama’s Christian Harris (6-2, 232 pounds), Wyoming’s Chad Muma (6-2, 241 pounds) all indicated meeting with the Patriots.
To fit the Patriots scheme, typically you need a little more height and bulk. Dean is a stud, and it would be interesting to see if the Pats went against type and selected him, if he somehow fell down the board to them.
Who’s No. 1?
Unlike most years, there’s no clear-cut, absolute, consensus No. 1 pick for this year’s draft.
Quarterback Trevor Lawrence was the slam-dunk choice last year. Joe Burrow was the year before.
With Jacksonville once again picking first, the only guarantee is it won’t be a quarterback. Among the prospects in contention for being taken first overall are Michigan edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson, Alabama left tackle Evan Neal, NC State left tackle Ikem “Ickey” Ekwonu and Oregon linebacker Kayvon Thibodeux.
What sayeth the Jags?
GM Trent Baalke was asked during his Combine media session if he was planning to use the No. 1 pick or if he’d be willing to trade it?
“Well you’re always open for business. Whether we’re gonna be able to move it or not, but we’re very comfortable taking the pick as well,” said Baalke. “You’ve got to be prepared for anything in this league. So to say we won’t shop it is probably not 100 percent correct, but to say we will is probably not either. So we’re gonna see what comes and if something comes our way and it makes sense to us, we’ll make that decision at that time.”
Protection for Lawrence has to be among the priorities.
Alabama’s Neal said he’d love to be that guy. Oddly, the Crimson Tide haven’t had a No. 1 overall pick in 74 years and counting.
“It would mean everything. There are a whole lot of Alabama players who were worthy of being drafted in that spot,” Neal said Thursday at the combine. “For it to be me would be really special. Make the whole state of Alabama proud, the university for sure.”
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