FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The most significant constant for the New England Patriots' defense over the past three seasons has been starting safeties Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung on the field together. In the 2016 regular season, for example, McCourty played a team-high 98.1 percent of the defensive snaps, with Chung not far behind at 96.5 percent.
Those numbers stand out most when analyzing the Patriots’ defensive snap counts for the 2016 regular season.
“It’s hard to put a price tag on that, but there certainly is one,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Tuesday. “That’s where the communication is most critical, that safety position on the back end of the defense. It’s critical for the middle linebacker in the front seven, but the safety position is your last line of defense, so when it’s a mistake there, it results in usually more damage.”
Belichick elaborated further, noting how McCourty and Chung not only bring intelligence and dependability to the defense, but they are probably “two of the better tacklers in the league at their position.”
Belichick also said No. 3 safety Duron Harmon (48.6 percent of the snaps) is part of the conversation as well, because his presence usually moves Chung to a different role and expands the communication.
“We get all three of them on the field at the same time, it just makes us a strong team down the middle,” Belichick said.
The connection between two starting safeties could be compared to that of quarterback to receiver. McCourty and Chung have been growing that connection over the past three seasons, as McCourty played 84.7 percent of the defensive snaps in 2015, with Chung at 81 percent. In 2014, McCourty was at 91 percent and Chung at 77.
“They work together well, study and communicate off the field on how to play off each other or work in combination or work on disguises and things like that,” Belichick said. “They’re pretty interchangeable.”
The safeties provide the springboard to further examine the regular-season-ending snap-count analysis:
Total defensive snaps: 1,042 (average per game: 65.1)
McCourty -- 1,022 (98.1 percent)
Chung -- 1,006 (96.5 percent)
Harmon -- 506 (48.6 percent)
Jordan Richards -- 18 (1.7 percent)
Nate Ebner -- 18 (1.7 percent)
Both signed for multiple years --McCourty (2019) and Chung (2018) -- so the aforementioned growth between them could continue into the future. Harmon is a free agent after the season and recently said he was too invested in the team and day-to-day process to think about that now. His high playing-time total highlights how the team uses the “Big Nickel” package as well as dime at a significant clip.
Malcolm Butler -- 1,008 (96.7 percent)
Logan Ryan -- 897 (86.1 percent)
Eric Rowe -- 452 (43.4 percent)
Justin Coleman -- 227 (21.8 percent)
Cyrus Jones -- 147 (14.1 percent)
Jonathan Jones -- 64 (6.1 percent)
Butler will be a restricted free agent this offseason, and it would be a shock if the Patriots didn’t give him a first-round tender. He’s been the team’s No. 1 cornerback the past two years, competes at an extremely high level and is worthy of a longer-term extension that pays him among the game’s better corners. Ryan will also enter unrestricted free agency and can expect a nice payday as well. As part of the terms of the trade with the Eagles for Rowe, he had to play 50 percent of the snaps either this season (he didn’t) or next for Philadelphia to receive a 2018 third-round pick. If Rowe doesn’t, that pick will become a 2018 fourth-rounder. Coleman fell off the radar over the final seven games, so the Patriots will have to assess in the offseason if he is still ascending. It doesn’t look like they see it that way right now. Jonathan Jones (undrafted, Auburn) was a pleasant surprise, with his primary contributions on special teams and occasionally on defense, while top draft pick Cyrus Jones (second round, No. 60 overall) had a rocky rookie campaign, but the Patriots are naturally still invested in him at this early juncture.
Dont'a Hightower -- 708 (67.9 percent)
Jamie Collins -- 438 (42.0 percent)
Shea McClellin -- 360 (34.5 percent)
Elandon Roberts -- 271 (26.0 percent)
Kyle Van Noy -- 249 (23.9 percent)
Jonathan Freeny -- 97 (9.3 percent)
Barkevious Mingo -- 47 (4.5 percent)
Hightower, who missed three games with injuries and has had his workload managed in a few other games, is a free agent after the season. One would think he’s a top priority for the Patriots to re-sign. One potential sticking point using history as a guide from similar situations: Given some of the time Hightower has missed with injuries, the Patriots might be more inclined to offer some bonus money in per-game roster bonuses, and if another team is willing to guarantee the money upfront, that could increase the threat of Hightower departing. McClellin started the season in more of an end-of-the-line role, before playing more off the line when the calendar turned to mid-to-late November. That seems like a better fit for him. Van Noy, acquired in a late-October trade from Detroit, has seemed to have his most success as a rusher in sub-packages. Roberts, the sixth-round pick from Houston, plays downhill with force and has been a surprise based on his draft status. Mingo turned out to be more of a special-teamer for the Patriots; although it’s unclear why, his skinny, wiry frame (listed at 6-foot-4, 240 pounds) might be the main reason, as he’s not a take-on player against the run.
Alan Branch -- 626 (60.1 percent)
Malcom Brown -- 596 (57.2 percent)
Vincent Valentine -- 287 (27.5 percent)
Anthony Johnson -- 74 (7.1 percent)
Woodrow Hamilton -- 42 (4.0 percent)
Belichick recently called Branch the team’s most consistent player “by far” among this group. Brown has been replaced as a starter the past two games, as Belichick said he could be more consistent. So the breakout season some were projecting for the 2015 first-round pick hasn’t materialized. Valentine, a third-round pick out of Nebraska, has mostly been the third player in a three-man rotation, as this was a build-the-foundation type season for him in which he flashed promise at times. Players in this group usually come off the field in passing situations.
Chris Long -- 678 (65.1 percent)
Jabaal Sheard -- 579 (55.6 percent)
Trey Flowers -- 563 (54.0 percent)
Rob Ninkovich -- 462 (44.3 percent)
Geneo Grissom -- 10 (1.0 percent)
Flowers, who was selected with the 2015 fourth-round pick acquired from Tampa Bay in the 2014 Logan Mankins trade, has been a revelation. He played just four snaps as a rookie, although he had flashed in the preseason that year with a sack of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers before hurting his shoulder (which affected his availability). This season, Flowers often reduced inside in passing situations and has had notable success as a rusher in that role. At 6-2 and 266 pounds, his uncommon arm length (34 1/4 inches) is one of his assets. Meanwhile, Sheard’s deactivation Nov. 20 against San Francisco was a big story at the time, highlighting some rocky moments he worked his way through before re-emerging as a backup behind Flowers and Ninkovich (whose snap count is lower because of a four-game suspension to open the season). He's a free agent after the season. Long played all 16 games but saw his usage dip in the second half of the season: He averaged 48.8 snaps per game through the first eight contests, with the number dipping to 35.8 per game over the final eight contests. In turn, Flowers had averaged 29.75 snaps per game through the first eight contests, with that number spiking to an average of 40.625 per game over the final eight contests.