FOXBOROUGH — It appears the cornerback-safety wheel that has been spinning weekly for Devin McCourty finally has stopped on a set position. McCourty will remain at safety for the Patriots the rest of this season, according to two NFL sources.
McCourty played both positions at Rutgers, beginning his college career at safety before switching to cornerback, his primary position over his first two-plus seasons with the Patriots.
But injuries late last season — plus McCourty’s versatility — led the team to try him at safety, where he performed admirably.
The signing of Steve Gregory in the offseason produced a projected starting lineup of Gregory and Patrick Chung, but neither has remained healthy. Chung has missed four straight games with shoulder and hamstring injuries; Gregory (hip) recently returned after also missing four games.
When McCourty was taken by the Patriots in the first round in 2010, coach Bill Belichick said McCourty’s ability to break down film and know not only his responsibilities but also his teammates’ was among the best he’d ever seen in his years of pre-draft interviews. McCourty’s on-field intelligence and ability to communicate with the other defensive backs are a big plus in the deep part of the field.
“Devin has been a solid, dependable player for us for three years now in different roles,” Belichick said Monday. “Is he more comfortable now [at safety] than he was a couple weeks ago because he’s played more? He probably is, but I thought that he did a good job when he stepped into that role.”
Concern over cornerback depth led the Patriots to keep McCourty there at the start of this season. But with McCourty’s play, the injuries to Chung and Gregory, and the acquisition last week of cornerback Aqib Talib, safety might be the better fit.
One player the Patriots definitely could use Thursday against the Jets, especially with Rob Gronkowski injured, is fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez.
An ankle injury suffered in the home opener Sept. 16 has been tough for Hernandez to overcome. He came back and played in two games, but has missed six of the past eight, including three straight.
Hernandez played coy when asked Monday if he’ll be on the field against the Jets.
“We’ll see,” Hernandez said, smiling.
The other tight ends on the active roster are Daniel Fells, Visanthe Shiancoe, and Michael Hoomanawanui. They’ve combined for four catches on the season. Gronkowski (53) and Hernandez (17) have combined for 70, and 12 of those have gone for touchdowns.
Hernandez has been inactive for the last three games, with the Patriots winning all three and scoring 45, 37, and 59 points. He likes what he’s seen, but wants to be part of it, especially now with Gronkowski not available.
“It’s tough to watch, but hopefully I get back soon and help them out,” Hernandez said. “He’s obviously one of the best players in the league, but we have a lot of players and everyone has to step up to fill the void.”
Will that be Hernandez this week?
“I don’t know,” Belichick said. “We’ll have to see how close he is or isn’t to playing. Probably make a decision later on in the week, maybe even a game-time decision.
“I’d definitely put Aaron in the day-by-day category.”
Right back at it
Defensive end Rob Ninkovich, on the quick turnaround before facing the Jets Thanksgiving night: “It’s pretty quick. You’re still a little sore from just playing a day ago, so you just kind of have to do your best to move on, and get ready to prepare the next day for the team you’re about to play in a couple days. It’s definitely quick, but nothing that we haven’t done before.” . . . Deion Branch cleared waivers Monday, making him a free agent. The receiver, who was released by the Patriots Saturday, still had his locker intact . . . Receiver Kamar Aiken was signed to the practice squad. Aiken, a second-year pro from Central Florida, played in two games for the Bills last season, and spent time this year on the practice squads of the Bills and Bears. A practice squad spot was open because the Patriots promoted Greg Salas to the active roster Saturday . . . Because of the Thursday game, both the Patriots and Jets had to file injury and practice reports Monday. The Patriots did not practice, but based their report on projections had there been a practice. Gronkowski, Chandler Jones (ankle), and Logan Mankins (ankle/calf) were all listed as did not participate. The only difference from last Friday’s report was the removal of cornerback Malcolm Williams, who was released Saturday . . . Team owner Robert Kraft will join current and former Patriots at Goodwill headquarters in Roxbury Tuesday, distributing Thanksgiving food baskets to more than 200 families in need . . . Sunday’s 59-24 Patriots demolition of the Colts at Gillette Stadium produced a local television rating of 43.08, the highest this season and the third-best regular-season game in franchise history.