COMMENTARY | The on-field performance of defensive back Devin McCourty fluctuated during his first three seasons with the New England Patriots. This year will be his first full season playing safety, and the team must be anxious to see how he will contribute to the defense.
The Patriots made McCourty their first-round pick in the 2010 draft out of Rutgers University. He came to the team as a cornerback, and he was sensational as a rookie, notching 82 tackles, seven interceptions and a Pro Bowl appearance.
He struggled in coverage in 2011, to the point where he spent some time at safety. While he had 87 tackles, his interceptions dropped to just two.
According to The Boston Globe's Shalise Manza Young, after not allowing more than 92 passing yards in coverage in any one game during his rookie year, he was prone to big plays during his sophomore year, allowing 378 combined yards in his first three games in 2011 alone.
Playing more as a hybrid defensive back, he spent time at both corner and safety last year, collecting 82 tackles and five interceptions. By the end of the season, he was firmly entrenched as a starting safety and showing signs he had returned to the ball-hawking ways of his rookie campaign.
With training camp well underway, McCourty is now a veteran leader and a captain on defense, but he must continue proving himself with consistent play from his new position. This is his first full year as a starting safety, so both he and the team should have high hopes for him making a positive impact.
The 25-year-old believes he has gotten better at his new position as he has received more reps. He explained to the Boston Heralds' Jeff Howe, "I don't care what anybody says, when you're able to play a position for a while, you start to pick up things and you get a feeling that you can't get just from watching it or seeing it from another position. … All the work I've been able to play now at safety, I think it will definitely benefit me come the season."
As things stand, McCourty is positioned to be the team's starting free safety, opposite big hitter and free-agent pickup Adrian Wilson at strong safety. He couldn't have a better veteran as a teacher and mentor than the five-time Pro-Bowler.
Although he still has things to learn about his new position, numbers suggest McCourty was adapting well at safety last year. Nathan Jahnke of Pro Football Focus reported that in the games McCourty played primarily at safety in 2012, opposing quarterbacks had just a 10.1 rating when throwing his way compared to a 78.2 mark when he was at cornerback.
Playing safety will mean McCourty will not be in nearly as many one-on-one matchups against receivers as he was as a cornerback. With that no longer being his strength, his new position, which focuses on roaming the middle of the field and providing help, should be a much better fit for his skill set.
Cornerback Aqib Talib, who effectively replaced McCourty at cornerback after being acquired in a midseason trade last year, told Howe how important his teammate is to the defense. "We need Dev back there," he said. "He's a sideline-to-sideline safety. He's one of the smartest guys I've ever played with."
A free-ranging McCourty could be just what the pass defense needs. The 277 passing yards they allowed per game last season was fourth-worst in the league, and only slightly better than the 294 yards per game they allowed in 2011, which was the second-worst mark.
McCourty has been spotted playing some cornerback in practice this summer, but that is likely to keep him sharp in the event he is ever needed at his old position. Head coach Bill Belichick likes his defensive backs to be versatile and keeps them on their toes by giving them practice reps around the field.
McCourty told ESPN Boston's Field Yates remaining flexible is challenging yet necessary: "I wish I could say it's as easy as riding a bike, but it's not. You have to be out there and getting reps and experience certain things; you can't just walk out there and be able to play."
Having already provided glimpses of what he can do at safety, the possibilities of his impact over a full season are tantalizing. If he can continue improving and becoming comfortable, he could go a long way towards shoring up a pass defense that has been among the league's worst in recent years.
In addition to the Yahoo! Contributor Network, Andrew Martin has written for Bleacher Report and a number of print publications and websites on the topics of history and sports. He also produces his own blog and has appeared on various sports talk shows and podcasts.
You can follow Andrew on Twitter @historianandrew.
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