FOXBORO -- It's hard to know who started the trend. Was it Deone Buchanan with the Cardinals just a handful of years ago? Did it start much earlier with versatile, big-hitting, run-supporting strong safeties Ronnie Lott and Steve Atwater? Before that, even?
Wherever you want to pin the start date on the timeline, one thing is clear: We are currently in an era where safety-linebacker hybrids are as valuable as ever. And the playoff matchup Sunday between the Patriots and Chargers will feature one of the most impactful safety-linebacker hybrids over the past several years on one sideline. On the other, a rookie prototype for that role.
Patrick Chung, in his second go-round with the Patriots, has become among his team's most trustworthy defenders because of his ability to play in all situations. He can play a more traditional strong safety role. He's served as a linebacker when needed. He's defended tight ends, running backs and slot receivers, and he may defend all three positions in one week.
At 5-foot-11, 215 pounds, Chung gives the Patriots a veteran who understands multiple roles, who is athletic enough to keep up with offenses that continue to get faster, and who tackles well enough to pose a problem for offensive coordinators wanting to attack smaller personnel packages defensively with a bruising running game.
You want to go big offensively? Chung can hold his own in the box. Want to go small? He can cover. Want to play hurry-up to burn a defense that needs to sub? He's generally not coming out. (Chung has played at least 88 percent of New England's defensive snaps the past four years.)
These players -- whether they were big college defensive backs being asked to play some linebacker responsibilities at the NFL level, or college linebackers being asked to cover regularly -- now dot rosters across the NFL.
New England Patriots
But the Chargers may have found the best of the bunch.
Derwin James fell to Los Angeles with the No. 17 overall pick back in April, giving coach Anthony Lynn and defensive coordinator Gus Bradley a true queen-on-the-chess-board type.
James checks in at 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, he ran a 4.47-second 40-yard dash at the combine and jumped 40 inches in the vertical. In Bradley's Cover-3 defense, he has the ability to play free safety, strong safety, linebacker . . . and he has the ability to be a devastating edge rusher if the Chargers want to blitz him.
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His full skill set was on display in last week's Wild Card win over the Ravens.
Understanding what it takes to be able to handle all those roles, to earn trust in all those situations, and to execute has quickly made Chung a James admirer.
"He's good, man," Chung told me Wednesday. "For a young kid coming in to grasp all the information and be able to play the different spots like that and make plays while doing it, hats off to him."
James was so good in his rookie season, he's joined the likes of JJ Watt and Khalil Mack as players to be given All-Pro honors at two different spots in the same year. He was a first-team selection at safety and a second-team selection at defensive back.
Perhaps just as indicative of how well James has played, Bill Belichick praised James about as effusively as anyone the Patriots have played this season.
"Yeah, he’s very good," Belichick said this week. "He’s as good as anybody we’ve seen all year. Big, fast, athletic, very instinctive. He primarily plays around the line of scrimmage. Usually in a safety position but they play a lot of six and seven defensive backs, so sometimes he’s in a linebacker-type position, but whether you want to call him a linebacker or a safety, he’s down near the line of scrimmage. It’s pretty much the same.
"He’s a very good tackler. He’s a very good blitzer when they blitz him. He can play very strong against the running game and when they put him in the deep part of the field, which happens some – he’s down a lot more than he’s back – but he plays effectively from back there, too. He gets a good break on the ball. He reads the quarterback well and he’s had some big plays in the deep part of the field knocking the ball off of receivers and getting a good break on the ball and getting to the reception area.
"His length, his strength, his speed and his instinctiveness – he has a good nose for the ball. He’s around the ball a lot and physically he’s really hard to deal with. He’s fast and with great size and explosive power. The guy’s a really good football player."
James could end up playing a significant role Sunday because he's often found at the second level, which just so happens to be where the Patriots make their living in the passing game. Whether he's tracking Rob Gronkowski down the seam or James White coming out of the backfield, he may force Tom Brady to look elsewhere in the passing game.
James has done most of his damage in coverage on backs lately. He allowed just 13 yards on four combined targets to Royce Freeman and Devontae Booker in Week 17. But he has no issues shadowing tight ends, as he proved when he held Travis Kelce to two yards on two catches in Week 15. In Week 10, Jared Cook was targeted three times without a catch with James on him.
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Wherever James is, he'll be a problem. Though Chung won't have to play him, he's familiar with the threat James' versatility poses.
"He's good," Chung said. "Hopefully he can stay healthy and continue to grow as a professional and become elite. But he's good right now so, you know, hopefully, we slow [him] down, too."
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