Commentary

Safety first for Pats?

Mailbaggers identify a potential need that Belichick might be overlooking

Updated: April 8, 2014, 12:59 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

When the Patriots' "needs" list was evaluated after the team's free-agent activity, was the safety position listed too low?

That is the main topic of discussion in this week's Patriots mailbag, and it's timely because there has been some change at the position over the last week with veteran Adrian Wilson released and 2009 second-round draft choice Patrick Chung re-signed after one season with the Eagles.

As it stands now, the team's personnel at safety looks like this:

Starters: Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon

Backups: Patrick Chung, Kanorris Davis, Nate Ebner, Tavon Wilson

A wild card to consider is the possibility of cornerback Logan Ryan getting a look at the position, although with veteran cornerback Brandon Browner suspended the first four games of the regular season, Ryan figures to compete for a starting spot at corner.

Q. Mike, not sure if I'm alone here, but I believe we should really look at upgrading the safety position at No. 29 (or above if one falls within range). Calvin Pryor from Louisville would look great with Devin McCourty, as would Jimmie Ward from Northern Illinois. I strongly believe that if we were to draft a quality safety, we have the makings of a very strong defense. Obviously we need to make a splash at LB as well, but if we could target safety and LB in rounds one and two -- and then DL, TE and QB -- we'll be set. -- Jason (Utah)

A. Jason, as you'll see in this week's mailbag, you aren't alone in identifying safety as a spot to upgrade. I think that safety spot primarily comes down to how the team views 2013 third-round pick Duron Harmon, who was pretty solid in his 427 defensive snaps last season. I'd like to see more of Harmon, but I won't argue with the idea of drafting another safety to fill things out a bit, particularly a bigger, hard-hitter like Washington State's Deone Bucannon if he's there in a post-round-1 scenario. I like the idea of another safety to complement McCourty and Harmon from a pure defensive perspective as the rest of the crop is more special-teams-only in classification.

[+] EnlargeHarmon
AP Photo/Jim MahoneyWhether the Pats draft a safety primarily comes down to how the team views 2013 third-round pick Duron Harmon, who played 427 defensive snaps last season.

Q. Hey Mike, I was wondering if you have had a chance to take a look at the safeties in the draft yet? Any mock draft that I have read has at least three safeties taken in the first two rounds, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Calvin Pryor, and Southern Cal's Dion Bailey, in that order. If available, do you thing BB takes one? I know Patrick Chung was just re-signed but he is not the long-term answer. Do you think they signed him to give Harmon another year of experience under his belt? They need to have someone they can rely on to team up with McCourty at that position. -- Phil (Braintree, Mass.)

A. Phil, I'm not sure of Bailey being that high, as it's been more Washington State's Deone Bucannon, Northern Illinois' Jimmie Ward and Florida State's Terrence Brooks as the safeties most often mentioned after the top two of Clinton-Dix and Pryor. Overall, this is not viewed as a very strong safety class, which sort of reminds me of 2012 when the Patriots picked Tavon Wilson in the second round (48th round) when it was Mark Barron and Harrison Smith as the top two safeties in the draft and then a notable drop-off. On the Patriots' safeties, Chung is a special-teamer and if he's on the field, you hope it's more emergency-based. I think Harmon has a chance to develop, and there has been some chatter that perhaps cornerback Logan Ryan could get a look there. I think corner is a better fit for Ryan and wouldn't go too far down that road.

Q. Despite all the acquisitions the Patriots have made in the defensive backfield, I'm not sold on Duron Harmon. The trend that I've noticed is that, under BB, rookies generally have a "productive, overachieving" first year before falling off in their second year (Tavon Wilson being a recent example with 4 INTs as a rookie). I think we need a "Kam Chancellor" in our secondary to both stop the run and make opposing receivers think twice before reaching out over the middle for a catch. What would you think about us drafting Calvin Pryor (Louisville) as an enforcer to solidify the strong safety position? Thanks. -- Eddie (Boca Raton, Fla.)

A. I think Pryor could be there at 29, Eddie, and it's an intriguing possibility to consider. I still would lean toward one of the Notre Dame defensive linemen (Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt) or Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier there because I think the front seven is a greater need, but could also see why Pryor would be of interest at that spot. I was a bit higher on Harrison Smith in that range a couple of years ago. On Harmon, I thought he accounted for himself well, has good size (6-0, 205), and is a smart player who showed better range than I was anticipating based on some of the pre-draft chatter surrounding him. He was also pretty solid when it came to tackling.

SportsNation

Should upgrading the safety position be the Patriots' top priority in the draft?

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    21%
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    79%

Discuss (Total votes: 2,798)

Q. Hi Mike, my question has to deal with how the Pats roster is looking in terms of special teams. You often remind us how much emphasis BB places on the "third" part of the team, and I'm curious what your thoughts are on the lineup for the Big Four units. Specialists aside, I see Matthew Slater, Nate Ebner and Tavon Wilson as 46-man roster spots with the purpose of only being on special teams. Do you see Ebner and Wilson being valuable enough to take up that roster spot for another year? Do you feel good about what is currently on the roster for the big four units (Dane Fletcher out, Chung in, etc.)? -- David C. (Phoenix)

A. David, I'd expand the list a bit when it comes to players who look like special-teams-only types on the roster to include linebacker Chris White and safety Kanorris Davis. Economics will be a factor in the decision-making. With Tavon Wilson, for example, he will count $1.1 million against the salary cap if he's on the roster. If he's cut, the Patriots will only save about $400,000 because of the acceleration of his bonus money. So he'd really have to be out-performed decisively to lose the spot. Chung, on the other hand, would only count $60,000 against the cap if he's cut. That's why I think Chung has to do more to earn a spot.

Q. Mike, assuming that the Patriots are mostly done dabbling in free agency, how to you think they approach the draft from here? Are they comfortable enough with the roster to trade down or out of the first round? Is there one or two major targets in the first round that they feel would be a great fit? Filling the biggest need? Best available? What's your take? -- Justin (Kentucky)

A. All good questions, Justin, and my viewpoint is that the team is well-positioned to do all of those things depending on what unfolds in front of them. If the season starts today, I don't think there are too many players they draft, if any, that would be in the starting lineup like we saw in 2008 with Jerod Mayo. So you want to take the best player from a wide-ranging view and if all things are equal and they end up picking at 29, I think they'd like that player to be a front-seven defender.

[+] Enlarge Ryan Shazier
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteAt 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds, Ohio State LB Ryan Shazier is smaller than Bill Belichick usually likes, but he's one of the most athletic players in the draft and could be a solid addition to the Pats' defense.

Q. With the loss of Brandon Spikes and Dane Fletcher there is a need for depth at ILB. I think Ryan Shazier (LB, Ohio State) would be a very good player at ILB in the draft for the Patriots. The concern is that at 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds, this is smaller than Bill Belichick usually likes. Could you see Belichick changing his philosophy a bit with this player? -- David (North Attleborough, Mass.)

A. David, Shazier is one of my favorite players in this draft and I think he'd be a slam-dunk choice at No. 29 if he's there. I view him as one of the safest, most athletic players in the draft, and the whole size discussion sort of reminds me of past chatter with the likes of Jon Beason and Lavonte David. While there is some concern with Shazier's size and ability to play in a "phone booth," I generally think that's an outdated way to look at defense in today's NFL when teams are in sub 70 percent of the time and there is such variation in defensive packages. Belichick has traditionally liked the bigger 'backers when considering the prototype at the position, but I don't think he'd hesitate with a player like Shazier, especially when he already has a bigger 'backer in Dont'a Hightower. As he said last year when discussing Lavonte David, his work as a coverage linebacker stood out in college at Nebraska and that's valuable to any team.

Q. Mike, what are the Pats going to do if Chandler Jones and one of the linebackers gets hurt? I can not believe how thin they are at both positions. It's shocking, really. I'm also still concerned about the pass rush. Thoughts? -- Ryan (Concord)

A. Ryan, you've hit on two areas that I think will be a sharp focus for the team in the draft. Also, I wouldn't rule out the signing of veteran end Will Smith to aid in that pass-rush area. It's important to point out we're only looking at a partial snapshot of the team right now. Consider what 2012 looked like before the draft with first-rounders Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower. No team has all the holes filled at this point, but they'll be a lot to closer to it by the end of the draft.

Q. If Ryan Mallett wanted to stay with the Patriots, do you think they'd be open to an extension? I'm sure he wants to compete for a starting job, but is it really unrealistic to think that Mallet would want to stay in New England? He makes $750,000 a year, and is on a team that competes for a Super Bowl every season. That seems like a better option than going to a team like the Jaguars, losing 10 games a year, and then getting released two years later. -- Dylan (Nashville)

A. Dylan, what's important to individual players will vary, but I'd be surprised if Mallett was willing to concede any real chance to earn a starting spot for a backup role at this point of his career. To do so, I'd think the Patriots would have to compensate him at the top-level mark for backup quarterbacks and that's about $4 million per season. I just don't see the team doing that, or Mallett really being interesting in that route. And be careful of insulting those Jaguars -- I think they're on the rise.

Q. Do all the pre-draft attendees get noted in the press? You mentioned that each team has a limit of 30, but with announcements of all who show up, does it show some draft direction? Do some just never get press acknowledgement? -- Greg (Mars Hill, N.C.)

A. Greg, everyone has a little bit of a different view on the 30 pre-draft visits, and here's mine: It's valuable information because it indicates, at the least, that a team is still seeking more intelligence on the player to accurately grade him. Oftentimes, it's medical-based. So my approach is that when I know the Patriots are having a player in, I want to look a bit closer at that player myself. Not all visits are reported, and not all reported visits are accurate.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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