Who Will Win the New England Patriots' Strong Safety Battle?

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Who Will Win the New England Patriots' Strong Safety Battle?
USA TODAY Sports

With OTAs, minicamp and training camp all on tap for the New England Patriots, the time is now for position battles to begin brewing in Foxborough.

Strong safety will be one of them.

In the modern-day NFL, starting strong safeties must be enforcers against both the run and the pass. They're chess pieces, built to make receivers think twice about going over the middle and make running backs think twice about the eighth man in the box.

Strong safeties must be freelancers, but judicial ones. They must be aggressive defenders, but not overzealous ones. In essence, they must be able to be everywhere, but not in one place too much.

Quite the job description, right?

To make matters more demanding, versatility is also a key component. It is the last line of prevention against schematic exploitation and medical attrition. And according to head coach Bill Belichick, it's a prerequisite.

In Belichick's eyes, a Patriots safety doesn't have to look like a LaRon Landry-esque weak-side linebacker, but he does have to be well-versed in the responsibilities of both the free and the strong spot, as he told Chris Forsberg of ESPN Boston:

The short answer is I think that in our system we have always taught our safeties both positions. If they’re on the strong side of the formation or on the weak side of the formation, to learn how to play of those because inevitably there are going to be times when the offenses are going to do that and force you to do that and then sometimes we, by game plan, adjust that from week-to-week on what specifically we want them to do.

While it's stating the obvious, the Patriots haven't been able to find a long-term answer at the position ever since the polarizing Rodney Harrison retired in 2008. Names like James Sanders, Brandon Meriweather, Josh Barrett, Sergio Brown, James Ihedigbo and Patrick Chung all spent time inhabiting the strong safety cocoon.

The Patriots' list of departed strong safeties since 2008. (Information courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com)

All of them have departed.

Once again, the Patriots are looking for continuity. Last year, that came in the form of undersized range, as the coaching staff essentially put two cornerbacks in center field. Neither starter stood over 5'11" or 200 pounds.

Will the team consider submitting a similar strategy in 2013? Or will a change in personnel lead to a change in procedure?

At this point, we know what the strong safety position entails and what the Patriots look for in one. Now, let's move on to all of the candidates who could end up playing in tandem with free safety Devin McCourty.

And with all due respect to Troy's undrafted rookie Kanorris Davis as well as last year's sixth-round special teams ace Nate Ebner, this should be more of a four-horse race.

 

Steve Gregory

Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports
Steve Gregory spent most of 2012 as the starter next to Devin McCourty.

Ex-San Diego Chargers defensive back Steve Gregory arrived in New England a year ago aiming to find a niche in the secondary. And to his credit, he was able to do so. Gregory started 12 games and amassed 37 tackles, three picks and two forced fumbles last season.

Gregory—a former special teamer—performed well on paper. But the 5'11", 200-pound DB wasn't exactly as effective on the field. 

When McCourty transitioned from cornerback to free safety, that moved Gregory into unfamiliar territory. The Syracuse alum often looked to be a step late in diagnosing plays and also got overmatched from a coverage standpoint and in the open field.

Gregory was never perceived as a game-changer for the Patriots, but he was perceived as a solid contributor. It's hard to say Gregory let anyone down during his initial year with the Patriots. He is who he is: a complementary defensive back who can fill in on sub packages as well as special teams.

 

Duron Harmon

Jim Rogash/Getty Images
Duron Harmon was a secret to 31 other teams.

Belichick may have forced his hand with the selection of Rutgers Scarlet Knight Duron Harmon in Round 3, but he did so for a reason. Even though the 6'0", 192-pounder was considered a Round 7 pick by most evaluators, his resume might just prove otherwise.

Harmon is an intelligent, team-first, deep-shell coverage safety who started 13 games as a senior in Piscataway, N.J. For good measure, he also notched 50 tackles, seven pass breakups and one interception on his way to earning first-team All-Big East honors for the second consecutive season.

An accomplished two-year starter whose best year came in 2011 when he picked off five passes, Harmon is a mystery. Nevertheless, he could very well serve an important role in 2013.

Still, the odds of a 22-year-old landing the starting job right away seem unlikely with all the incumbent depth. Harmon is the proverbial dark horse in this positional race. We don't really know what he's capable of just yet.

But from an early assessment, Harmon seems fit to play in a dimeback capacity right off the bat.

 

Adrian Wilson 

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Adrian Wilson has moved east after a dozen seasons in the NFC West.

Four-time All-Pro Adrian Wilson joined the Patriots this March after spending 12 memorable seasons with the Arizona Cardinals

At first glance, Wilson's vitals are clear: He is 33 years old and a gigantic 6'3", 230 pounds. The latter of those observations doesn't really kick in until you see him in person, explained the Boston Herald's Jeff Howe.

Experience and imposing size are two much-needed assets that Wilson brings to the table. He may no longer be the top-flight safety he was during his early years, but his drop-off has been a gradual one.

He is a mentor, a ball hawk, a tough tackler and a cog in the utility machine for New England. Wilson can get pressure in the backfield, netting three sacks last season. He can also stand pat in coverage, knocking down 14 balls just two seasons ago.

Look for Wilson to be vetted as a potential starter. That said, his greatest role may end up being the "Money" defensive back in the dime, covering tight ends and running backs in the seam and flats.

When he's on the field, anticipate man coverage on the outside and likely a "Cover 1" setup over the top. He is, of course, what the creators of the safety position had in mind.

Wilson will play a pivotal role for the Patriots, even if he isn't getting the starting nod.

 

Tavon Wilson 

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Tavon Wilson is facing high expectations in Year 2.

Drafting Illinois cornerback, nickelback and safety Tavon Wilson with pick No. 48 of the 2012 draft was no fluke. Belichick and the rest of the Patriots hierarchy did so with a purpose.

Wilson's positional flexibility is exactly what New England's defense looks for, and his flashes were visible from Day 1. The 6'0", 210-pound Washington, D.C., native was credited with four starts as a rookie while also stepping in at the "Money" spot, racking up 41 tackles, four interceptions, two fumble recoveries and six pass breakups.

The most notable criticism when it comes to Wilson is the fact many believe he could have been taken later on in the draft. But there's little time for hindsight now. He's at Gillette and he's building towards his second NFL season.

Wilson participated in 43 percent of defensive snaps as a greenhorn, according to Football Outsiders. Expect that rate to grow over the next year.

A sound tackler with a nose for the football and a knack for any defensive backfield duties, Wilson is a starting-caliber player for both the future and the present. If he can minimize his hesitation in coverage—particularly on play-action fakes—then there's no reason he couldn't make a second-year leap.

He may not have the track record, the eye-popping athleticism or the size of a traditional strong safety, but Wilson does have the innate ability to make plays. Finishing his first professional season tied for 11th in interceptions and 15th in fumble recoveries suggests just that.

Many will still call Wilson a "reach" for now, but don't be surprised if he ends up being a "starter" for New England in 2013.

From an organizational standpoint, Wilson earning an expanded job is the best-case scenario. After all, he wasn't taken on Day 2 just to sub in during dime situations.

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