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Devin McCourty Developing into Premier NFL Safety

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Devin McCourty Developing into Premier NFL Safety
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

No one could have predicted the course that the career of Devin McCourty has taken.

No one, however, will complain about it.

Since his move to safety, McCourty has provided the Patriots with a steady, consistent, dependable presence on the back end. 

McCourty is developing into a safety that must be accounted for in a game plan. His reaction time, range, closing speed and ball skills are all incredible assets that make him one of the best deep safeties in football.

It helps that he is a perfect safety for the Patriots defense because of his ability to read and react, but it's been a long journey for McCourty to land in "perfect safety" territory, and he's put in a lot of hard work to get there.

Drafted out of Rutgers as a cornerback in 2010, McCourty stormed out of the gate as a rookie and finished the season with a league-leading seven interceptions.

However,if 2010 was memorable for McCourty's meteoric rise, the 2011 season was unforgettable for the opposite reason—his crash back down to Earth, as he yielded over 1,000 yards through the air.

McCourty's move to safety actually began during that same year against the Buffalo Bills, in the final game of the season, and he didn't waste any time showing why he would be a good fit at the position.

NFL Game Rewind

The Bills came out with four wide receivers and one running back split out wide, with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick in the shotgun. The Patriots responded with seven defensive backs, with the corners in man coverage and the safeties in a Cover 2 shell.

McCourty disguised Cover 1 by sitting at the top of the formation as the lone safety prior to the snap, before Patrick Chung joined him in deep coverage on the other side of the field.

NFL Game Rewind

McCourty didn't have to do much to get this interception. He kept his eyes on the quarterback, reading Fitzpatrick as he went through his progressions. He began to break on the ball just after it was thrown on the slant route to running back C.J. Spiller over the middle of the field.

NFL Game Rewind

The ball was either thrown too hard or simply got there before Spiller was ready for it; either way, it bounced off Spiller's hands and into the waiting arms of McCourty.

This interception was gift-wrapped for McCourty, but the principles of it still set the stage for McCourty's future performance at safety.

His coverage wasand always is—at its best with his eyes on the quarterback; his raw skills of running backwards and forwards at nearly equal speeds, as well as his ability to smoothly flip his hips from one direction to another, have also helped the transition.

Said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick:

He’s one of our best-prepared players, both physically and mentally. He has a very good understanding of the overall defense and has gotten more experience at the safety position. He's also worked some at corner. He's a great team player. He's been a captain since his second year in the league, so wherever we need him, I know he's prepared to play and do the best he can for the team. That's one of the things we all love about Devin: He's a great team player. He’s a good player, does a lot of different things—in the kicking game, defense, safety, corner, nickel, whatever it happens to be. He's very dependable, he's very consistent, and he works hard, puts the team first. There's not much to not like about him; it’s pretty much all good.

There is no better example of how much of a team player McCourty is than on this play involving he and cornerback Marquice Cole—a play in which the two worked together in a little game of volleyball to get this interception off Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill:

NFL Game Rewind

Yet this was far from just some circus play, as McCourty's play recognition, ball skills and sideline-to-sideline range were all on display here. 

He read the play perfectly and began breaking on the ball before Tannehill had even begun his throwing motion.

That might sometimes be construed as "guessing," but it's clear that wasn't the case here. With no other deep routes to account for, and with Tannehill staring down his receiver, McCourty simply made the right decision before the quarterback made any decision at all.

"To be able to cover that much ground and have that kind of range as a post safety is remarkable," said Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. "I see that every day in practice. You really have to look Devin off. He's really smart—he sees combinations, and sometimes you try to look him off and he knows you’re trying to look him off so he doesn't take it. There are other times he gets great jumps on the ball. The longer he's been at safety, the better he's done."

There are some myths about how he ended up there full-time in the first place.

After seeing what he could do at safety in the final part of the 2011 season, there were reports during the 2012 offseason that the Patriots planned to move him there full-time. Those plans didn't pan out, though, with injuries and poor play from other cornerbacks thrusting McCourty back to cornerback. 

When the Patriots finally moved him to safety full-time—Week 7 of the 2012 season—it wasn't because McCourty was playing poorly. The stats do a perfectly fine job of outlining that fact:

Devin McCourty in coverage (regular season)
Season Pos G Tgt Rec Cth % Yds TD INT PD Rate
2010 CB 16 99 55 55.6 586 4 7 12 57
2011 CB 16 101 62 61.4 1004 6 2 8 106.2
2012 CB 6 53 27 50.9 388 3 2 6 78.2
2012 S 10 14 5 35.7 60 0 3 1 10.1
2013 S 9 19 12 63.2 137 0 1 5 62.8

Pro Football Focus

He was moved because of injuries at safety to both Patrick Chung and Steve Gregory. The Patriots were forced to revamp their secondary on the fly, and they had allowed 33 pass plays of 20 yards or more through the first six games of the season as well. McCourty was just the first domino to fall.

From there:

  1. Alfonzo Dennard went from the bench to the starting outside spot.
  2. Kyle Arrington moved to the slot.
  3. The Patriots traded for Aqib Talib. 

Since the whirlwind has settled down in the secondary, McCourty has been one of the glue guys of that group—and he's even gone back to his original position from time to time. 

Moving him to safety has paid off for the Patriots, but soon, McCourty will have to be the one getting paid off. His contract expires at the end of the 2014 season, making him a free-agent who is capable of signing with any team. 

Some of the recent contracts handed out to safeties around the league indicate that McCourty could be in line for a nice payday.

Recent big contracts for safeties
Player Team Years Total $ Average Guaranteed $
Dashon Goldson TB 5 $41,250,000 $8,250,000 $18,00,000
LaRon Landry IND 4 $24,000,000 $6,000,000 $11,000,000
Michael Griffin TEN 5 $35,000,000 $7,000,000 $11,500,000
Troy Polamalu PIT 4 $36,500,000 $9,125,000 $10,550,000
Eric Weddle SD 5 $40,000,000 $8,000,000 $19,000,000

Spotrac.com

McCourty counts for $1.845 million against the salary cap this year, according to Spotrac, and will count for $2.115 million next year. 

That's nowhere near the money that the top-10 highest-paid safeties in the league are getting this year, per Spotrac. Eric Berry, drafted at No. 5 overall by the Chiefs in 2010the same year as McCourtycounts for over $10.2 million on the cap this year. Also, this offseason, the Buccaneers signed safety Dashon Goldson to a contract that counts for $9 million against the cap this year.

The Patriots could elect to use the franchise tag on him at the end of next season, but he'll be 27 years old at that time and in no way unworthy of a long-term contract. It is useless to try to guess what the price of franchise tag would be, since his status as a free agent is still two offseasons away from becoming a reality. However, it should be noted that Bills safety Jairus Byrd gets $6.916 million this year as the lone franchise-tagged safety.

McCourty should be considered one of the next players due for a long-term contract with the Patriots, after defensive end Rob Ninkovich (also a defensive captain) received his extension just a few weeks ago.

If it's not the Patriots paying him, someone else surely will break the bank for one of the NFL's top-flight safeties.

 

 

Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand or via team news releases.

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