Phil Perry

Perry: Could Patriots find their McCourty replacement in 2023 draft?


The Patriots are in an interesting spot when it comes to the safety position right now. Devin McCourty has retired, and how they react is ... unclear.

There are options on the roster that could work. Jonathan Jones, who looks like the de facto leader of the secondary in McCourty's absence, has the speed and smarts to take on the free safety role in Bill Belichick's defense. Jalen Mills played safety in Philadelphia and could find himself in the deep portion of the field in 2023 -- especially if the Patriots take a big-bodied corner early in the draft, freeing up Mills to change positions.

The team could also adjust its scheme in order to make up for McCourty's loss. Perhaps without an adept and experienced centerfielder readily available, Belichick could call for more two-high safety looks with Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips and Jabrill Peppers occasionally finding themselves as the last line of defense.

Then there's the draft. If that's the route the Patriots take, what will they be looking for?

Perry's Prototypical Patriots: Quarterbacks | Offensive linemen | Wide receivers | Tight ends | Running backs | Cornerbacks

Safeties Belichick has drafted in the first three rounds over the years usually had 40 times close to 4.5 seconds or lower. Their verticals were in the 35- to 40-inch range. Most had broad jumps of 10 feet or better. Jordan Richards -- an athletic outlier for the Patriots at the position (4.65-second 40, 32-inch vertical, 9-foot-3 broad) -- had an above-average three-cone time (6.74 seconds), but most others were closer to 7.0 seconds.

Players at this position have been at least 5-foot-11 and 192 pounds. Players who skewed more toward free safety (McCourty, Duron Harmon, Eugene Wilson, Brandon Meriweather) were all between 5-foot-11 and 6-feet, between 192 and 196 pounds. And with McCourty gone, that's where we'll focus our search in this year's draft class...

Jartavius "Quan" Martin, Illinois (5-foot-11, 194 pounds)

Martin feels like the best fit for the Patriots if there's going to be a future free safety from this group. He checks every box. And then some.

After chatting with the man he could potentially replace in Foxboro, Devin McCourty, to find out what the Patriots want in safeties, it was Martin who emerged as the No. 1 fit. Fast. Explosive. A willing hitter. High-end football IQ. He has it all. And he played for former Belichick assistant Bret Bielema.

He looks like a late Day 2 option with the ability to make an immediate impact.

Brian Branch, Alabama (6-feet, 190 pounds)

The only reason Branch isn't listed first here is thanks to some athletic limitations he may face at the next level if his future employer wants to play him as a post safety. His 4.58-second 40 would indicate he doesn't have the requisite juice to take over McCourty's role. But Branch can do just about everything in the secondary.

He can take snaps in the deep portion of the field. He can play in the slot. He can tackle. He could probably match up as a boundary corner if he wanted to, depending on the matchup. This first-team All-American screams Patriots defensive back, where the lines separating roles from one another are blurred and versatility is paramount.

Daniel Scott, California (6-foot-1, 208 pounds)

A team captain for the Golden Bears, Scott went to the Senior Bowl and impressed. Then at the combine he ran a 4.45-second 40 and jumped 39.5 inches in the vertical. And in an era when fewer and fewer athletes are willing to do the change-of-direction tests (short shuttle and three-cone drill), Scott did both. He knocked his three-cone (6.75 seconds, 86th percentile) out of the park.

He may not be the surest tackler in this group, but if the Patriots want a free safety and miss on Martin early, Scott could be the later-round option they favor. Like Martin, he has the ability to do a little bit of everything -- play in the box, man the slot, cover deep -- and he's a willing run defender. Check, check, check and check from a Patriots perspective.

Isaiah Bolden, Jackson State (6-foot-2, 201 pounds)

Bolden bounced around a bit, committing to Florida State, then Oregon and then landing in Tallahassee for two years. He later transferred to Jackson State to play for Deion Sanders and excelled.

He's not quite a Sanders-esque athlete. But he's impressive. His 4.33-second 40 is eye-popping at over 200 pounds. He also recorded a vertical of 38 inches and a broad of 10-foot-9. He'll be a return specialist at the next level, but if he comes to an understanding of the Patriots system in Foxboro, he all has the physical tools to take over for McCourty eventually.

The Patriots reportedly hosted Bolden on a "top 30" visit recently.

Jason Taylor, Oklahoma State (6-feet, 204 pounds)

Another intriguing special-teams option (over 500 kicking-game snaps) who should be available on Day 3, Taylor is all kinds of twitchy. His 4.50-second 40 isn't going to wow anyone, but his 43-inch vertical (98th percentile) should. His instincts and tracking ability should help make him a disruptor at the next level, and if he gets his hands on the football he has the ability to take it from anywhere and score. He had an 85-yard fumble recovery returned for a score and an 85-yard pick-six for the Cowboys.

Taylor may be a little too willing to peer into opposing backfields at times, desperate to read the quarterback's eyes even if they lead him astray, but he brings a lot of positive to the table for a team like Belichick's that places such a premium on special-teams ability.

Brandon Hill, Pittsburgh (5-foot-10, 193 pounds)

Hill has one aspect of this position down that not all do: He was the voice of the Pitt defense at times late in his career. That was McCourty's gig for years. Not only was he a motivator, but he had to make adjustments from his centerfield spot -- and they had to be right.

After playing 26 games for the Panthers the last two seasons, Hill has plenty of experience to lean on to give him some confidence when he gets to the next level that he'll understand what he's looking at. Would be hard for any rookie to step into Foxboro and claim a leadership role, of course, but at least with Hill it's apparent that he has the ability to function in that way eventually.

Until then, he can rely on his rangy athleticism (4.43-second 40, 6.88-second three-cone drill) to do the talking for him. 

Gervarrius Owens, Houston (6-feet, 195 pounds)

Owens barely sneaks onto this year's list with a just-fast-enough 4.56-second 40 time. Hard to play the deep middle without the requisite long speed. But he showed at Houston that he's a better athlete than that. A captain with an unrelenting motor, he may be faster than most by the ends of games because of his on-the-field demeanor.

Another special-teamer with a ton of in-game experience (42 starts in his career with the Cougars), Owens has enough in the way of athleticism (37.5-inch vertical, 10-foot-5 broad, 6.75-second three-cone time) and football savvy to be considered by the minds at One Patriot Place in the later rounds.

Jordan Howden, Minnesota (6-feet, 203 pounds)

A zero-star recruit who made the most of his preferred walk-on status for the Gophers, Howden will have the kind of chip on his shoulder as a pro that the Patriots would appreciate. His 40 time (4.49 second), vertical (39.5 inches) and three-cone (6.87 seconds) are all certainly within range for the Patriots at this position, and that's evidenced by the quick and explosive breaks he makes on passes made into his area.

Another kicking-game demon (over 500 snaps on special teams), Howden has a lot going for him that makes him feel like a Patriots fit.

Ty Okada, Montana State (5-foot-11, 193 pounds)

A high-school quarterback who had to walk on at Montana State and change over to the defensive side of the ball, Okada had plenty to overcome to turn himself into an NFL prospect. But he has. Especially after showing off his NFL-caliber athleticism at his pro day (4.44-second 40, 40.5-inch vertical, 3.98-second short shuttle, 6.85 cone).

Okada is a willing tackler who has played a variety of positions in the secondary and is thought to have a high football IQ. Belichick has never drafted a player from Montana State, but on Day 3, Okada could be worthy of being the first.

Christian Izien, Rutgers (5-foot-9, 199 pounds)

Izien is a touch undersized, but given the program from which he hails, Belichick might be willing to make an exception. Izien is a Greg Schiano pupil with the Scarlet Knights, so Belichick will know Izien got good coaching in the college ranks. He'll also know he's getting an explosive athlete in Izien based on how his pro day went (4.42-second 40, 41.5-inch vertical).

Izien is a tough player (didn't miss a game in four years) who likes contact and knows what he's doing on fourth down (over 500 special teams snaps). If he can play in the post and serve as a core special-teamer, he may be worthy of a late-round selection. Sure sounds like a Patriot.

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