FOXBOROUGH — On paper, the New England Patriots have one of the NFL's most improved secondaries. On the field, there is still one positional question mark: strong safety.
Enter second-year safety Duron Harmon, last year's No. 2 strong safety. Harmon hopes to win back the starting spot that he earned ever-so-briefly during the absence of veteran safety Steve Gregory, who was released by the team in March.
The expectations may be higher, but Harmon is approaching this offseason the same way he approached last offseason: by preparing like a starter.
"I'm approaching it just like last year," Harmon said on Tuesday after the team's first practice of mandatory minicamp. "Last year, I approached the game like being a starter, preparing like a starter, because you never know when your opportunity will come. And it came last year. I started three games last year, and I think because I prepared like a starter, I was able to play those games and do well."
Harmon started three games, but also played 433 snaps (38.9 percent of the defensive total), according to Pro Football Focus.
Even in limited action, Harmon had a chance to show off his superb reaction time, closing speed, and tackling ability — skills that will all serve him well as a deep safety in the Patriots' scheme.
In Harmon's endeavor to prepare like a starter, he has also taken to watching some of the league's best starters at strong safety to help him mold his game.
"One of the things that I did was pinpoint a few safeties that I thought were very, very good in the game, and I watched them, tried to watch the techniques they utilized, tried to watch how they played — are they physical, are they on the line of scrimmage, are they in the deep part of the field — and just try to see what type of football player they are and just try to utilize that in my games," he said. "Also, I went over different coverages that we run, and I just drilled myself, going over different formations, watching film, just keep drilling stuff in my head, so it will all be second nature to me when I get on the field."
Harmon chuckled as three or four reporters all, in unison, asked him which safeties he's been watching, and he was more than happy to rattle off a list that reads like a who's-who of the league's elite safeties.
"Earl Thomas was a good one, that's one of the guys I really looked at as a great player," Harmon said. "I watched Dashon Goldson, I watched Antoine Bethea, I watched Devin McCourty, of course. Then I watched Donte Whitner, as well. Those are some of the guys that I watched."
The list includes a mix of free safeties (Thomas, Goldson, McCourty) and strong safeties (Bethea, Whitner) but Harmon noted that he focused on the strong safeties, since he will most likely be lining up at that position more than free safety if he earns a starting spot.
There is danger in trying too hard to mold one's game after someone else, though, since he is not exactly the same player as those he has watched this offseason.
"I think I'd just like to model and take parts from each one of their games," he added. "I think they all do things very, very well. We're not all the same athlete, so I think picking things from each of their games and trying to mold it to mine is the best thing I can do."
It's easy to forget that Harmon is only entering his second year. He has not looked out of place during practice, and does not sound overwhelmed by the daunting task of communicating checks to his teammates.
If you're not getting better, you're getting worse, and Harmon's teammates don't sound the least bit concerned about the growth of the former Rutgers safety.
"I think that the greatest thing about it is you keep seeing improvement," said McCourty. "Especially early in your career, you just want to keep improving. Both [Harmon and third-year safety Tavon Wilson] are improving. They've actually played really well all spring. I know it's an exciting time for that position — just competing — and I think it's really good. That position is getting better because we're all competing and bringing the best out of each other."
With McCourty by his side and cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner locking down the edges, the Patriots have plenty of talent around Harmon to help bring out the best in him. Harmon has been continually running with those three in practice, indication enough that the starting job is his to lose.
Based on his offseason approach, however, Harmon knows that nothing is guaranteed.