Prototypical Patriots: Sure-tackling safeties from Florida, Michigan look like fits

Prototypical Patriots: Sure-tackling safeties from Florida, Michigan look like fits

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

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. 

Report: Brady expected to play Saturday night vs. Texans, but not Gronk

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Report: Brady expected to play Saturday night vs. Texans, but not Gronk

Tom Brady and other Patriots starters are expected to make their preseason debuts Saturday in the second preseason game vs. the Texans in Houston, but Rob Gronkowski won't play, Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald reports.

Gronkowski, recovering from back surgery performed late last season, hasn't played in a preseason game since 2012. 

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Brady and new acquisitions Brandin Cooks at wide receiver and Mike Gillislee at running back, along with wide receiver Julian Edelman and other starters, did not play in the Patriots' preseason opener against the Jaguars last week in Foxboro. The Patriots and Texans have been conducting joint practices at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia and Howe reports the plan all week has been to have the starters participate in the game Saturday night.

Of course, Bill Belichick reserves the right to change those plans. 

The Pats will return to the site of their last victory, NRG Stadium in Houston, where New England won Super Bowl 51 over the Falcons in February, to play the Texans. 

Freeney among available options if Patriots looking for pass-rush help

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Freeney among available options if Patriots looking for pass-rush help

For years, the Patriots have schemed to keep Dwight Freeney away from Tom Brady. Might they be interested in making him Brady's teammate?

With the news coming down on Friday that rookie third-round pick Derek Rivers may have suffered a season-ending knee injury, it was just the latest hit to an edge group that was already hurting for numbers.

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The Patriots lost Rob Ninkovich to retirement early in training camp. They lost rookie defensive end Deatrich Wise for a to-be-determined period of time to a head injury suffered during last week's preseason game with the Jaguars. They lost Shea McClellin to an apparent injury earlier this month that has kept him out for almost two weeks.

So what's next? Here are some of the options . . .

IMMEDIATE HELP FROM OUTSIDE THE ORGANIZATION

Bill Belichick and his staff could look outside the organization for help right away via free agency or trade. Freeney, who recorded seven quarterback hurries and a sack in Super Bowl LI, is available as a free agent. Former Dolphins, Bills and Texans defensive end Mario Williams -- who Belichick and director of player personnel Nick Caserio have happily referred to as "Big M" over the years -- is also without a team at the moment. Both of those players, 37 and 32 years old, respectively, could serve as stop-gap options. ESPN's Mike Reiss noted on Friday that perhaps Ninkovich could come out of retirement to help the club. 

Then there's the possibility of the trade. The Patriots are annually among the league's most aggressive teams in terms of looking for deals to help their roster, and this year figures to be no different. They have plenty in the way of draft capital if they decide to continue their recent trend of parting ways with picks for proven players in return. There are also valuable pieces on their roster who could end up elsewhere if the return is right. Of those, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and corner Malcolm Butler -- both in contract years -- would figure to be among their most valuable potential trade chips.

TAKE A WAIT-AND-SEE APPROACH

With only one cutdown deadline this year -- teams will have their rosters trimmed from 90 players to 53 following the last week of the preseason -- chaos figures to reign as teams scour the waiver wire for both active-roster and practice-squad help. Clubs could steadily make their releases in the days leading up to the deadline, but the expectation is that there will still be a tsunami of cuts that take place in a very short span. The Patriots are already preparing for the well over 1,000 players who will eventually become available, taking an all-hands-on-deck approach in the scouting and personnel departments. Perhaps as things get hectic right around the deadline, capable edge help will become available. If it does, don't be surprsied to see the Patriots pounce. 

GO WITH WHAT THEY HAVE

The Patriots could choose to simply roll with what's on the roster for 2017. Their front-seven is loaded with versatile defensive linemen and linebackers who can play a variety of positions. Linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Harvey Langi have seen time on the edge in recent practices. Trey Flowers should be a staple on the edge when he's not being used as an interior rusher. Lawrence Guy is more of an interior force and seems to be ideally used as a five-technique, but he played all along the defensive line in Baltimore and could have some positional versatility in New England. Kony Ealy has started to show some things as a pass-rusher of late. And undrafted rookie defensive lineman Adam Butler -- who saw time everywhere from nose tackle to stand-up edge-rusher during training camp -- is an intriguing young prospect. 

The Patriots situation on the edge is far from ideal at the moment, and they could try to remedy their issues quickly with some outside help. But if they choose to stand pat, they do have options.