Returning players: CB Stephon Gilmore, CB Jason McCourty, CB J.C. Jackson, S Patrick Chung, S Duron Harmon, DB Joejuan Williams, CB Jonathan Jones, S Terrence Brooks, DB/SPT Justin Bethel, DB Malik Gant, CB D’Angelo Ross, DB Obi Melifonwu, DB Adarius Pickett, DB Lenzy Pipkins
Free agents: S Devin McCourty, S/SPT Nate Ebner
2019 recap: Led by 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore, the back end of the New England defense was the strength of one of the best units in football last fall. Gilmore not only made plays himself – he tied for the NFL lead with six interceptions, including a pair returned for touchdowns – but made the jobs of everyone else around him that much easier as the Patriots defense feasted on opposing passing attacks, especially early in the season. Unfortunately Gilmore had his one lone bad day struggling to keep up with DeVante Parker in the Dolphins’ season-finale upset in Foxborough that cost the Patriots a playoff bye. While Gilmore deserves all the positive attention he received, safety Devin McCourty may have been almost as important to the overall success of the unit. The veteran safety not only held things together in the back end as he’s done for years, but also made plenty of plays including five interceptions, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery to go along with his 58 tackles, most among New England defensive backs. Beyond Gilmore’s 16 starts as the clear No. 1 atop the cornerback depth chart, the group had impressive depth with J.C. Jackson (six starts in 16 games played tallying five interceptions), Jason McCourty (10 starts in 12 games played, one interception) and Jonathan Jones (nine starts in 15 games played, two forced fumbles) all making consistent contributions to the NFL’s No. 2 pass defense that held opponents to a combined 62.8 passer rating. Though Patrick Chung (12 starts in 13 games played, 51 tackles) may have started to show his age a bit in coverage, he and Duron Harmon (eight starts in 16 games played, two interceptions) remained significant contributors to the overall success of the secondary. From Gilmore’s historic season down through the overall depth of talent and contributions, there is no other way to say it than the Patriots defensive backfield had a tremendous overall season in 2019.
2020 projection: There is no reason to think Gilmore will be anything but one of the best cornerbacks in the game in 2020, especially considering how he’s shown nothing but consistent improvement over this three seasons in New England as arguably the biggest, most productive free-agent signing by Bill Belichick’s Patriots. In fact, in a league where pass defense is a primary concern the entire cornerback position should remain quite strong as the former undrafted rookie Jackson continues to evolve, Jason McCourty returns for one more season of veteran depth and Jones adds his slot and playmaking versatility. Even second-round pick Joejuan Williams has obvious upside given his size, physicality and potential matchup contributions. The safety position isn’t nearly as stable moving forward. Devin McCourty has the chance to hit free agency at the age of 32 coming off one of his best all-around seasons. Will the Patriots be willing to pay him in the range of the $9.5 million in cash he took in a year ago, the final season of the five-year, $48 million contract he inked last time he hit the open market? Chung isn’t getting any younger or more productive, putting even more importance on Harmon’s role as a third option/part-time starter even if he doesn’t have the same in-the-box capabilities. Terrence Brooks struggled on defense at times late in the year and doesn’t seem like a regular option to turn to. There just isn’t a lot of youth, depth or potential at safety, save for maybe Williams’ work as a tweener-type player.
Draft/free agency need – Moderate: If Devin McCourty doesn’t return for at least one more season alongside his twin brother, the safety position becomes an extremely big need. Even with McCourty back, there needs to be an addition of a possible Chung backup with in-the-box potential as well as maybe a developmental option to play a role at free safety for 2020 and beyond. Plenty of mock drafts have slotted the Patriots to target the safety position in the first round, which would make a lot of sense in many ways. Re-signing McCourty is probably the primary task at safety for Belichick and Nick Caserio, but adding depth and potential through both free agency and certainly the draft should also be strong considerations.