The Patriots have one of the deepest and most experienced safety groups in the NFL, but would it come as a shock if Bill Belichick decided to dip into that position at this year's draft?
Because of the combination of speed and tackling ability often found in players at that position, safeties on the Patriots frequently have held important roles both defensively and in the kicking game. Take last season for example when Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon and Patrick Chung were key members of the league's top scoring defense but made significant contributions on special teams as well. Nate Ebner, a reserve safety, is one of the team's top players in the kicking game and garnered All-Pro consideration last year.
PHIL PERRY'S PROTOTYPICAL PATRIOTS DRAFT PREVIEW
- DEFENSIVE ENDS: Basham's power, effort would fit on the edge
- DEFENSIVE TACKLES: Look to the SEC
- CORNERS: Griffin's athleticism makes him intriguing
- SAFETIES: Sure tacklers from Florida, Michigan look like fits
- LINEBACKERS: McMillan, Anzalone make sense
- SLOT CORNER: King's agility, toughness, seem ideal
- MOCK DRAFT: Version 1.0
That kind of versatility is invaluable in New England and has warranted heavy investment at the position in the past.
Between 2012 and 2015, Belichick drafted four safeties (including two second-rounders and a third-rounder), he moved Devin McCourty from corner to safety, and he re-signed Patrick Chung to become the team's Swiss Army knife box safety.
That in-the-box spot could be of particular interest for the Patriots before the draft as Chung (signed through 2018) will start the 2017 campaign at 30 years old, while Jordan Richards (18 defensive snaps last season) has served almost exclusively as a fourth-down player.
Chung highlighted the importance of the role he plays -- a hybrid safety-linebacker role that has become increasingly popular around the league -- during a recent back-and-forth with members of the media.
"The game is changing, obviously," he said. "Guys are getting more athletic. Just the more versatile you are, man, I'm trying to tell you, it helps. It helps a lot."
The following is a group of safeties in this year's draft class who fit the profile of what the Patriots often like in safeties who line up near the line of scrimmage: versatile, tough, aggressive tacklers, who have the athleticism to cover tight ends and backs in the passing game.
This is the second installment of a 12-part pre-draft series in which we do our best to identify Prototypical Patriots. You can find the linebackers we highlighted here.
Jabrill Peppers, Michigan, 5-foot-11, 213 pounds: Few players had a more wide-ranging set of on-the-field experiences in college. He saw time at linebacker, safety, running back and as a returner while at Ann Arbor, and his combine performance indicates he's one of the best athletes in the class -- his 4.46-second 40-yard dash, 35.5-inch vertical, 128-inch broad jump were all top-10 among safeties in Indy. Critics have harped on his deficiencies in coverage -- he had just one pick for the Wolverines -- but he's still expected to go in the first or second round.
Obi Melifonwu, Connecticut, 6-foot-4, 224 pounds: In terms of his size, Melifonwu is a giant compared to what the Patriots typically use at this spot -- Chung, for example, was 5-11, 212 pounds coming out of college -- but his athletic traits seemingly would allow him to do whatever the Patriots ask. He ran a 4.4-second 40, jumped 44 inches in the vertical and 141 inches in the broad, and his length would make him an ideal matchup on tight ends. As will likely be the case with Peppers, if the Patriots want UConn's top prospect, they'll have to trade up into the first or second round.
Justin Evans, Texas A&M, 6-feet, 199 pounds: The 4.57 40-yard dash Evans submitted at his pro day is just on the cusp of what the Patriots typically tolerate, but his 41.5-inch vertical and 129-inch broad jump are hints that he will be an explosive athlete at the next level. He missed 38 tackles in his last two seasons, per Pro Football Focus, which may be a red flag for a team like the Patriots that puts so much value on sure tackling, but perhaps with good coaching his aggressive style and quick-twitch reactions can be harnessed to make him a more dependable player in that regard.
Marcus Maye, Florida, 6-feet, 210 pounds: One of the best fits for the Patriots at this spot, Maye isn't the best athlete of the group, but he checks just about every mark that Patriots safeties have in the recent past with a 4.5-second 40, a 33.5-inch vertical, a 118-inch broad jump and a 7.1-second three-cone drill. Touted as the leader of his team's talent-laden secondary and one of the draft's best tacklers -- only missed one tackle last season, per PFF -- Maye seems ideally suited for work underneath in the Patriots secondary. That he's been invited to the draft in Philly (he passed) would indicate that he's thought of as a first or second-rounder and would require the Patriots trading up to take him.
Josh Jones, NC State, 6-foot-1, 220 pounds: Another big-hitter whose technique could use some polishing, Jones is an intriguing fit because of his combination of size, speed and explosiveness. His 4.41-second 40, 37.5-inch vertical, 132-inch broad jump and 20 bench-press reps at 225 pounds were among the best any safety posted at the combine. He played all over the field for the Wolfpack, lining up as a post safety, in the slot and at linebacker at times. Against Miami he showed he had the ability to stick with one of the draft's top tight ends, David Njoku, in coverage.
Delano Hill, Michigan, 6-foot-1, 216 pounds: If Maye is off the board early, Hill may be a solid later-round option if the Patriots want to go down the box-safety route. An eager run-defender, Hill was PFF's fifth-most efficient tackler at the position (only four total missed tackles), and he excelled in the slot. Though he's thought to be lacking somewhat as an athlete, some of his combine numbers would suggest otherwise. He clocked a 4.47-second 40 and a 6.97 three-cone drill.