- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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INDIANAPOLIS -- The switch came out of nowhere in the New England Patriots' 2011 regular-season finale.
Devin McCourty, a Pro Bowl cornerback as a rookie, was moving to safety for significant snaps. It continued into the playoffs, and in retrospect, the Patriots liked what they saw.
"For not having ever practiced there before, he played pretty well," director of player personnel Nick Caserio said Thursday at the NFL combine.
McCourty's adaptability to the role helped his rocky second season end on a high note, while at the same time sparking questions about whether his future is at cornerback (where he intercepted seven passes as a rookie but slipped noticeably in 2011) or safety (where he helped stabilize a shaky situation).
It is a decision that could possibly affect the Patriots' approach this offseason in free agency and the draft, where the corner crop is considered deeper than safety. If McCourty is going the way of Eugene Wilson, the 2003 second-round draft choice who played cornerback at Illinois but moved to safety with the Patriots when Lawyer Milloy was shockingly cut before the season opener that year, it would alter the club's team-building road map.
The way Caserio sees it, the Patriots now have options. And for those who have followed the franchise in Bill Belichick's tenure, it's no news flash that buzzwords "flexibility" and "versatility" are on one of the first pages of the playbook with the X's and O's.
"Having guys that have that degree of versatility, I think it just helps the entire defense in general," Caserio said. "You can move guys around. You have a little bit of flexibility. I think the most important thing goes back to the team-building -- you're looking for players who can improve your team, regardless of position, and then we'll move them around and put them in a position that best utilizes their skills and what the coaches think is going to be the best position for them."
In McCourty's case, the late-season switch to safety initially seemed to be more about the players around him than his own play at corner.
The Patriots never could stabilize their safety spot, in part because of roster moves (cutting James Sanders in the preseason thinned depth), injuries (Patrick Chung and Josh Barrett missed considerable time) and stunted development (Sergio Brown). By the end of the year, it looked like only two available safeties had earned the trust of the coaching staff -- Chung and James Ihedigbo. With Ihedigbo most often coming off the field in sub situations because he wasn't viewed as strong against the pass, it narrowed the safety field to one.
Enter the 5-foot-10, 193-pound McCourty at the "weak" safety spot.
"Devin's value is that he can do multiple things," Caserio said, pointing out the versatility of others as well, such as cornerback Kyle Arrington's ability to play outside and in the "star" slot position. "Not everybody can do it, but if you have a guy that can, it can give you some flexibility with what you're doing defensively, especially on the back half."
The back half, as it has been in recent years with constant personnel switches, remains a concern for the Patriots. A few more tweaks are in order and, of course, it wouldn't hurt for more of a pass-rush presence in the front seven to ease the burden on the secondary.
As for McCourty, one of his top assets is the ability to support the run, an often-overlooked skill when it comes to DB play and a must-have for any safety. His "run force" was generally impressive last season, yet he lagged in coverage, an area in which he had few struggles as a rookie.
Identifying the root of those struggles and fixing them is one of the keys for the Patriots this offseason. If the defense is to improve, and there seems to be little disagreement that it's the area in need of the most attention, it needs the 2010 version of McCourty to return regardless of what position he's playing.
"He will be back, there is no doubt about it," promised Greg Schiano, McCourty's coach at Rutgers, who is now in his first season as Tampa Bay Buccaneers head man.
"I know he got [banged] up a little bit [with his shoulder], which he has been fortunate that hasn't happened too much to him in his career. If he didn't play at the level he had done the year before, that probably had something to do with it, because he is as committed as a football player in his preparation and the way he takes care of himself. He will be back."
If he is, it would be as valuable to the Patriots as any draft choice or free-agent signing.
Funny how that works. The Patriots are at the NFL combine, getting a closer look at the next wave of prospects to enter the league, while also considering free-agent possibilities. But in some ways, one of the most important pieces is already in place.
It's a restoration project already on their roster who might be a cornerback or might be a safety.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.
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