One line of thinking as the Patriots enter the offseason is that Devin McCourty holds the key to a big part of the team's plans.
The thinking is that if McCourty stays at cornerback full-time, it highlights the need for a safety. But if McCourty is projected to play more safety, which he did in sub packages in the regular-season finale and playoffs, then cornerback is the spot for the Patriots to target.
Opinion: McCourty will be back at corner on a full-time basis in 2012.
The feeling here is that McCourty's time at safety was more because of a lack of depth/confidence at safety than the coaching staff's preference to play him there. Based on playing time statistics over 19 games, it was clear how the Patriots viewed their safety personnel -- the team had one full-time safety (Patrick Chung) and one early-down safety (James Ihedigbo) who would come off the field in passing situations.
After that, it was a scramble.
The staff liked Josh Barrett but he was limited to just five games because of injury (he'll be in the mix again in '12). Second-year man Sergio Brown, a player whom Bill Belichick said in preseason was only getting better, didn't take the next step in his development on D. So they tried Sterling Moore at safety. Then Matthew Slater. Then Nate Jones.
When you don't feel good about what you have, you keep trying different options, and that's what I believe led the coaching staff to the McCourty/safety experiment in sub packages at the end of the year.
I don't think the move was tied to some of McCourty's technique struggles at corner as he slipped from a Pro Bowl 2010 campaign. It was more a result of the coaching staff finally settling on a top five of McCourty, Kyle Arrington, Chung, Ihedigbo and Moore (at corner) in the secondary, and matching that five up the best way possible.
As for the season-long shuffle at safety, with Chung missing eight games because of injury contributing to the instability, it naturally contributed to some of the struggles the team had on pass defense. In retrospect, it makes one wonder if the preseason decisions to release Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders were the right calls.
Looking forward, this is why I view McCourty returning to a full-time cornerback role in 2012 and safety as a top offseason need area for the Patriots to address.
Four free agents to consider (assuming they hit market)
Tyvon Branch (Raiders)
Dashon Goldson (49ers)
Michael Griffin (Tennessee)
Reggie Nelson (Bengals)