Why Devin McCourty might be Bill Belichick’s best defensive draft pick ever

“He just does a tremendous job in every area."

New England Patriots free safety Devin McCourty (32) works against the Washington Redskins during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
New England Patriots free safety Devin McCourty. –AP

COMMENTARY

After twice trading out of opportunities to draft stud receivers Demaryius Thomas and Dez Bryant, the Patriots finally pulled the trigger and made a selection as the 2010 NFL Draft dwindled toward the end of its first round. Though there was some question about what exactly the Pats were getting with that pick.

“New England might have spent a first-round pick on a special teams player,” Bryan Flynn wrote in a Bleacher-Report analysis that echoed the similar sentiments of better-known draft gurus Mel Kiper and Mike Mayock. “It will depend if McCourty can get on the field and help out on defense.”

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As it played out, Devin McCourty didn’t need long to answer that question, opening the season as one of the Patriots’ starting cornerbacks — then finishing it at the Pro Bowl after making seven interceptions. In one stretch that season he registered an interception in three straight games, which stood as a career-long until this September, when he picked a pass on four successive Sundays.

That streak earned him AFC player of the month honors, those accolades serving to highlight a decade’s worth of contributions so consistent, and so high-quality, that McCourty might now be considered the best defensive draft pick Bill Belichick has made over his 20 years at the helm of the Foxborough war room.

Saying he’s the best draft pick doesn’t necessarily mean he’s the best defensive player the Pats have drafted since 2000. Nor does it mean his selection was the savviest, or the one that most made Belichick look smarter than the rest. Rather, it contends that when everything is considered, the Pats have never done better in a combination of short, long, or historic terms than they did by tabbing McCourty at No. 27 overall.

“He just does a tremendous job in every area,” Belichick gushed about the defensive back before Super Bowl LII. “He’s been a team captain for multiple years, team captain his second year, which speaks a lot for his leadership and the respect that he has from his teammates.

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“(Current coach and former linebacker Jerod) Mayo is in that category, but it’s a short list.”

Mayo was the 10th player taken in 2008 and belongs in the conversation of the best defenders Belichick has drafted — but he retired at 30 and his role was diminished after age 26. According to Pro Football Reference’s Career Approximate Value (CAV) calculations, Asante Samuel (71) and Chandler Jones (57) have both had more valuable careers than McCourty, but both fled Foxborough and flourished elsewhere when it came time for a second contract.

The leaders in CAV among Belichick’s defensive draft picks are 2004 pick Vince Wilfork (91) and 2001 choice Richard Seymour (90), and there’s certainly an argument to be made for either of them over McCourty. There’s a chance one of them, if not both, will eventually be enshrined in Canton, Ohio, as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And each enjoyed his prime while playing for the Pats.

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However, both also battled the organization over money. Seymour’s contract dispute got him shipped to Oakland for his final four seasons. Wilfork skipped an offseason, threatened a holdout, and asked for his release at different points along the way.

That doesn’t diminish what either of them did for the football operation, but it does differ from the business dealings of McCourty, who tested free agency in 2015 but returned to the Pats with little drama and a new five-year deal.

And McCourty’s achievements on the field don’t take much of a backseat to either of them. While Seymour was a five-time All-Pro, and Wilfork was so honored four times, McCourty has been named an All-Pro three times so far. It’s worth noting, too, that McCourty played his way into that league-wide recognition at two different positions, earning it before and after transitioning from cornerback to safety.

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That’s a tremendous credit to his intelligence and versatility, considering McCourty changed positions when the team traded for Aqib Talib midway through the 2012 season, and by the end of 2013 was assessed by Pro Football Focus as the top-rated safety in the league.

The move was so seamless, he made the adjustment while hardly even leaving the field, having missed only five games over parts of 10 seasons — and of the 144 regular-season games he’s played, he’s started them all. So far this season he’s played a team-high 288 defensive snaps, which puts him at 91 percent of the team’s total, and over his career the only season in which he failed to top 89 percent participation was when an ankle injury cost him much of 2015’s final three weeks (and he finished at 85 percent). The last three years he’s surpassed 1,000 snaps in each season, and the only reason he’s not on pace to do that this season, at age 32, is because the Pats are so adept at shortening opponents’ possessions.

That type of dependability is precisely what a team is seeking when it spends a first-round pick to acquire a player. Finding a long-term starter is typically considered a success on Day 1 of the Draft, with finding a star thought to be a luxury — but in McCourty’s case the Pats managed to identify a piece of their foundational fabric.

They found a player who from day one has been a force with the first team and on fourth down. A player whose teammates have voted him a captain since his second season, and who has been lauded for his leadership ever since. A player who has not only bought wholly into the Patriots’ culture, but thrived in it while helping it evolve through the club’s various iterations. A player who wants to be part of something special with this organization, and is willing to do the requisite work.

A player who has been a stabilizer both in the secondary and, by all accounts, behind the scenes. A player who rallies his teammates into a fervor before battle, and whose presence as the anchor helps to calm concerns come gametime.

Oh, and a player who’s now at 25 interceptions, 731 tackles, three Super Bowl titles — and counting.
That’s certainly a player who was worth waiting a few extra picks for back on draft night in 2010.

“Devin’s a great teammate that works extremely hard, does his job well, very supportive of all his teammates, good communicator, hard worker on and off the field, works great in the weight room, film room, practice field, tough mental player on the football field,” Belichick said last year.

“I can’t say enough about the job that he’s done this year, and every year really,” the coach continued. “He’s an outstanding player and an even better person and better teammate. I couldn’t be prouder to coach a player than Devin McCourty.”

He should be. It’s been at least 15 years since one of the game’s all-time great defensive minds, and team builders, has made a better draft decision on that side of the ball. If ever.