When New England unexpectedly used their franchise tag on kicker Stephen Gostkowski, many Patriots fans were sent into a tailspin. It was widely expected that the Pats instead would use the tag on safety Devin McCourty, the back-end leader of a secondary that was one of the best in the NFL this past season.
Now, barring a deal before the start of free agency on March 10*, McCourty will hit the open market with many teams ready to make a run at him. It's widely known the Patriots don't overspend, so the chances that another team will offer a more lucrative offer to lure McCourty away from New England seem high.
(*Editor's note: McCourty agreed late Sunday to re-sign with the Patriots for a reported five years and $47.5 million, with $28.5 million guaranteed)
The thought of losing a leader and homegrown star like McCourty was enough to erase the sweet memory of winning Super Bowl XLIX just a month ago for many of Patriots Nation.
However, the Patriots’ defense won't collapse if McCourty were to depart — it's losing cornerback Darrelle Revis that would be a far more significant blow.
After years of struggling to rebuild the defense from the dynasty run of 2000s, the Patriots finally found the right mix in ‘14. Part of it was certainly McCourty at free safety, a spot he moved to in 2012 full time after spending his first two years at cornerback. But a bigger part of it was the addition of Revis, who could effectively erase any receiver from the game by himself.
Still, the last season’s remade pass defense was far from perfect, and some of the struggles point more toward McCourty than the rest of the secondary.
Since 2012, the Patriots are dead last in the NFL in passes allowed that cover more than 20 yards. Even in 2014 they were fourth worst. As the free safety on the back end of the defense, some of that responsibility has to fall on McCourty. Not all, as the Patriots would often use Duron Harmon on the back end in subpackages while placing McCourty closer to the line in man coverage. However, nearly half of all the 20-plus yard passes the Pats gave up this season came on first down, a situation in which McCourty was likely the free safety.
McCourty was often used in man coverage against tight ends, a sign of what a complete safety he is, but this is another area where the Patriots struggled statistically, ranking 30th overall by Football Outsiders' DVOA. Granted, the coverage of tight ends was done by committee, with Patrick Chung and Jamie Collins also sharing in the responsibilities, but again, the defense was at the bottom of the league and McCourty was part of that.
None of this is to minimize the player McCourty is. He's a phenomenal leader, model citizen and well-versed in the Patriots' system, and there's no question losing him would be a big blow for the Patriots. But it wasn't until Revis arrived that the Patriots' pass defense finally turned around.
Revis' dominant impact is clear in the stats, where the Patriots ranked seventh overall in covering No. 1 wide receivers by Football Outsiders (see chart at right). That's pretty much all Revis. And his impact by taking away the opponent's top receiving threat minimizes the need for a great free safety because it cuts the field in half for them.
Simply put, the Patriots would be far better off with Revis and Harmon at free safety, than forcing McCourty to cover the entire field in back working with some combination of Brandon Browner and Alfonzo Dennard, Logan Ryan or Malcolm Butler. Those are some solid players, but none of them are Revis.
There's still hope that the Patriots can retain both Revis and McCourty, and that makes sense even if it comes at the expense of free agent running back Shane Vereen, who had 11 catches in the Super Bowl. But if they can only keep one, it should be Revis.