Devin McCourty plans to play in 2020; will it be for the Patriots?

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- For all the attention paid to the impending free-agent status of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, the six-time Super Bowl champion isn't the only foundation-caliber player in the same situation.

Safety Devin McCourty, the 10-year veteran and eight-time captain whom Bill Belichick once called one of the greatest leaders he's coached, is also set for free agency.

McCourty, 32, made his intentions clear for 2020.

"He wants to play. Retirement is not an option," said agent Andy Simms of Young Money APAA Sports, who has represented McCourty since the Patriots selected him in the first round of the 2010 draft.

Whether that happens in New England -- where McCourty should one day be inducted into the team's Hall of Fame -- is one of several compelling questions facing a team with players who have been vital parts of the locker-room culture; specifically Brady, McCourty and special-teams captain Matthew Slater.

As for his mindset in free agency, McCourty shared his viewpoint in the most recent "Double Coverage" podcast.

"No one really knows what's going to happen. I would say most teams really don't even think about free agency for a couple weeks; I would say the beginning of March ... So you think where you could go, will you be on your team again? But there's really nothing [definitive] to think about."

The Patriots project to have $28 million in salary-cap space for 2020, which gives them some flexibility, but not as much as some others around the NFL, such as the Miami Dolphins (about $90 million) and New York Giants (about $60 million).

The financial landscape, as well as those with Patriots ties spreading across the NFL who might have great appreciation for everything McCourty brings to a team, sparks some obvious questions.

  • Will the Patriots have reservations about committing significant financial resources to McCourty at this stage of his career?

  • Will the presence of former Patriots assistants as head coaches elsewhere (e.g. Brian Flores/Dolphins, Joe Judge/Giants, Matt Patricia/Lions) help drive up McCourty's market as top safeties are now in the $10-14 million per year range?

It is too early to know the answers, but McCourty has decisively answered another important question in terms of his play on the field. He's still an impact defender.

Per NFL Next Gen Stats, he allowed a completion percentage of 54.3 this past season as the nearest defender in coverage. His "Hawk Rate" -- defined as percentage of targets when the nearest defender made a play on the football, was 17.1%.

Those numbers were improvements from the prior season for McCourty, whose durability is also a top asset; his 65 consecutive starts marks the third-longest active streak by a defensive back, according to ESPN's Stats & Information (Brandon Carr 192, Malcolm Jenkins 103).

That consistent presence, and how it enhances the all-important communication among defensive backs, has been critical for the Patriots' defense.

McCourty still has solid ball skills as well, as evidenced by him intercepting a pass in each of the first four games of the 2019 season, becoming the first NFL player to do so since Brian Russell with the Vikings in 2003.

But even McCourty acknowledged some of that was simply being in the right place at the right time, so a better barometer of his impact was when he chased down fleet-footed Dallas Cowboys receiver Randall Cobb in a Nov. 24 win.

"I'd say what surprises me is just how fast he really is," safeties coach Steve Belichick said at the time. "He's always been able to turn it on when he needs it. So I'm really not surprised when he makes plays like that, just because that's who Devin is. I'm not really waiting for him to slow down, either."

He's shown no signs of doing so.

Whether that leads him back to New England, or elsewhere, is to be determined.