FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots will hold their first public training camp practice on July 27. As part of the lead-up to camp, I'll spotlight one position each weekday to highlight the team's personnel and some of the storylines of note.
We covered wide receivers, offensive linemen, running backs, tight ends and quarterbacks last week before moving on to the defense this week, with linebackers, defensive ends, defensive tackles and cornerbacks. Today, it’s safeties.
Roster locks: McCourty, Chung, Harmon, Ebner, King
Patriots rely on three-safety packages as much as anyone: When coordinator Matt Patricia is putting together a defense that must be stout against the run but also competitive in the passing game, he often turns to a three-safety package. Few teams, if any, run more three-safety packages than New England, and last season’s Week 3 win over the Houston Texans was one notable example of this. It seems fair to say that this is one reason why Harmon, who was an unrestricted free agent after the 2016 season, was valued higher in New England than elsewhere across the NFL. He’s the No. 3 safety, but in many ways he could be viewed as a starter. He played 48.6 percent of the defensive snaps last year and is considered a strong locker-room presence.
Health report: Harmon didn’t participate in spring practices as he is coming back from offseason ankle surgery. He appears to be close to returning, but his status bears watching at the start of training camp. … Part of what has been so impressive from this group over the last two years is its durability and availability. McCourty played 98.1 percent of the defensive snaps last year, while Chung -- whose work against opposing tight ends is especially valuable -- was at 96.5 percent. In 2015, it was 84.7 percent for McCourty and 81.0 percent for Chung.
Defining year for Richards? Coach Bill Belichick often says that a player makes his biggest jump from Year 1 to Year 2, and with that in mind, 2017 looks like a big year for third-year safety Jordan Richards. The 2015 second-round pick played 21.8 percent of the defensive snaps as a rookie, and that number -- in part due to injury -- dropped to 1.7 percent in 2016. A buttoned-up, high-character 24-year-old who does the little things behind the scenes to make the team better, Richards could face a squeeze for a roster spot if everyone is healthy.
Special-teams considerations in focus: Safeties often play a significant role on special teams and that’s why Ebner -- who deserved serious consideration for the Pro Bowl last year -- is a lock. Ebner shows up at times on defense in the dime package, or in rare occasions when seven defensive backs are called upon. King is also a core special-teamer who is more of an in-the-box option, which makes him almost more of a linebacker than safety.
Rookie report: Jones, Thompson and Travis signed as undrafted free agents after the draft. Jones, of Richmond, showed up with a few notable plays in spring practices. At 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, he has good size for the position.
Stat check: Chung has been one of the team’s best tacklers; he was second on the team with 87 tackles last season, and was third with 82 in 2015.
Quote of note: "Devin’s very smart. He has great awareness of the entire concept of the defense, what the defense is designed to do, what the strengths are, what’s taken away, where we’re weak, how to try to compensate for that. Sometimes we have checks that will get us out of situations that we feel vulnerable within certain calls. So he’s responsible for a lot of that. His leadership, his on-the-field play, his toughness -- he’s done whatever we’ve asked him to do: return kickoffs, cover kicks, block the gunners on the punt return team, rush field goals, or whatever it is. He’s been not only a dependable player but a good player for us in all of those different areas. He brings great communication, great leadership on and off the field.” -- Bill Belichick, on Devin McCourty, in December 2016