In the lead-up to New England Patriots training camp, with the first public practice scheduled for Thursday, it is timely to review each position on the roster with our annual “roster locks” series. After previously highlighting the running backs, wide receivers, defensive ends, linebackers and defensive tackles, let’s move on to the safeties:
On the bubble: Jordan Richards
Explaining the locks: It is extremely uncommon for a team to have its top safety group remain together for five consecutive seasons, but that's the way it projects to unfold with McCourty (2010 first-round pick), Chung (returning to the team in 2014 after one season in Philadelphia), Harmon (2013 third-round pick) and Ebner (2012 sixth-round pick) all having earned second contracts with the team. McCourty, who has served as a team captain for seven consecutive years, is a central part of the all-important communication in the secondary from his spot in the middle. Last season, his top-end tackling was tapped when he played closer to the line of scrimmage in certain game plans, with Harmon taking over more of the center field-type duties. Meanwhile, Chung is often the choice to match up against top opposing tight ends and even occasionally a slot receiver. Like McCourty, he has been viewed by Bill Belichick as one of the better tacklers he's coached. Meanwhile, Ebner is a core special-teamer who signed a two-year, $5 million contract as a free agent this offseason, which reflects how he is a potential captain-in-waiting for the unit whenever Matthew Slater elects to retire.
Roster management: The Patriots kept five safeties on their initial 53-man roster, with special teams playing a major role in the final spot. Richards, the 2015 second-round draft pick who is Slater-like from a locker-room character and intelligence standpoint, could face competition for one of those final spots from Jones and Travis, both of whom spent the 2017 season on the practice squad. Travis, in particular, showed up in spring practices with one interception in a practice attended by reporters.
Stat of note: The Patriots played their "big nickel" defense (three safeties on the field at the same time) as much as any team in the NFL last season, as evidenced by the high snap counts played by their top safeties: McCourty (97.1 percent), Chung (87.5), Harmon (65.4) and Richards (26).
One thing to watch for in camp: Whether Jones (Richmond) or Travis (Minnesota) can compete for a roster spot, as they fall into the category of player Belichick referenced in April when he said, "This year, we have quite a few players who for one reason or another, various circumstances, didn’t have a lot of production last year. That may change this year. I don’t know, but it will be interesting and it’s exciting to see how they’re doing." Jones has a solid physical makeup (6-foot-3, 210 pounds) for the position, as does Travis (6-2, 215), as both joined the team last season after going undrafted. Where they show up on special-teams units will be one indication of their chances.