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As Bill Belichick attempts to reach his sixth Super Bowl as head coach in New England, he will be forced to rebuild a secondary that allowed the second most passing yards in 2011. He has done it before, transitioning from Lawyer Milloy and Tebucky Jones, to Rodney Harrison and Eugene Wilson, to today’s current era. However, despite a unit composed of several high draft picks, the youth’s evolution has left much to be desired as they begin to enter their collective prime.
Newly crowned defensive coordinator matt Patricia will be tasked to expedite the process. The safeties coach in 2011, Patricia’s familiarity with the unit will hopefully pay dividends for the team and Patriots’ fans. Those same fans will hope that the first-year defensive coordinator’s youthful secondary will grow together-as-one for this team to get over the Super Bowl hump and land the team its fourth Lombardi Trophy at Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans.
Below is the list of safeties who will attempt to accomplish that feat.
Chung tops this list because he has emerged as the unquestioned leader of the secondary. From big hits to timely interceptions, to fundamental play, Chung has it all. One drawback with Chung however is his health. He missed eight games last year (10 in last two years), and the New England defense (especially the secondary) saw a dramatic decrease in the quality of play. When in the lineup however, Chung has five career picks, three sacks, and consistently wraps up his tackle.
A 2009 second-rounder from Oregon, Chung will look to continue his year-by-year improvement. If his play can transform to the level the coaching staff envisioned when they selected him 34th in that draft, the Patriots’ secondary will be a viable unit. A regression seems off the table however, as Chung’s floor is a solid, dependable safety who can make crucial plays when called upon
The unknown player from this bunch, Gregory signed a three-year, $7.5 million contract in the offseason to play opposite Chung. A Charger for his entire career, Gregory entered the league in 2006 from Syracuse as an undrafted free agent. While he is not a household name, he is expected to contribute in New England’s back line this season.
During his six-year stint in San Diego, Gregory registered four career picks (he already recorded one in a preseason win against the Saints), a pair of fumble recoveries, and has played in at least 14 games in all but one year (2010).
Regarded as the biggest shocker during the 2012 Patriots draft, it is apparent the projected late-rounder impressed the coaching staff in pre-draft evaluation, despite not being invited to the Combine. And boy howdy, has that faith been rewarded. Wilson has shined in training camp, drawing rave reviews, not only for his ability on the field, but his ability to learn the game, be coached, and retain information. In nearly four months since being drafted, Wilson has begun his development into the prototypical Patriot.
However, all the reviews mean nothing if he cannot translate that learning ability into physical ability. The 6’0″ rookie from Illinois had a solid college career. He finished his senior campaign with 51 tackles, indicating he understands the fundamentals very well. If he can reach the potential the coaching staff has for him, Wilson could usurp Gregory as the starter opposite Chung this season.
Ihedigbo, a former Jets castoff and the pride of Umass-Amherst, shocked several pundits last year, not only because he made the roster, but because he eventually started the Super Bowl. While he is not the flashiest player in this bunch, it is obvious to outsiders that he is a coachable player (notice a pattern here). Despite his attraction to the weekly injury report, Ihedigbo time and time again earns himself playing time, weather it be on special teams, in nickel and dime situations, or as a depth guy who is serviceable as an injury replacement.
In this writer’s opinion, Ihedigbo’s a sure bet to make the 53-man roster, if he can stay on the field for the rest of the preseason.
Barrett found himself as the opening day starter last year after former first-round pick Brandon Meriweather was given by heave-hoe by the New England coaching staff. He’d had limited playing time however, as he was placed on the injury reserve due to a calf injury after just five games. During that span, Barrett filled in for a decaying secondary, and contributed in the kicking game. Besides his limited exposure last year however, Barrett is a relative unknown compared to his other mates in the secondary. With the emergence of Tavon Wilson during the preseason, Barrett could be fighting for a roster spot if he can not out-perform the rookie.
Brown was a nobody heading into the 2010 training camp, but that has changed in just two calendar years. Brown is regarded as one of the best special-teamers in the league (opposite Matthew Slater), and continued to provide excellent kick and punt coverage to limit opposing field position. He may not have glitz, he may not have glamour, but Brown has substance. He is a no-nonsense athlete who provides a valuable skillset to Coach Belichick. This alone should help him maintain a roster spot this season.
Another startling pick of the 2012 draft, Ebner translates his skills from the rugby pitch to the football gridiron. Ebner’s popularity has already soared this offseason due to his vast Youtube collection and Mike Felger praise, but the elephant in the room remains: Can his skills translate to the pro game? Well, its obvious he can tackle and take proper angles, but his ability to learn the playbook as well as read defenses will be the difference between quality playing time, and just another Belichick project.