Looking at the New England Patriots‘ projected starting lineup on defense, Duron Harmon is the football player who scares opponents the least. The second-year safety out of Bill Belichick‘s favorite college, Rutgers, is the fourth component in a secondary featuring Pro Bowlers Devin McCourty and Brandon Browner, and the newly acquired all-World Darrelle Revis.
That leaves Harmon, the strong safety, as game-plan fodder for the opposition’s passing attacks. In a defense that is already being claimed among the top five in the NFL (something the Patriots have not achieved since their 16-0 season in 2007), Harmon is the one who can make or break that offense-stopping horoscope.
During his rookie season, the 2013 third-round pick slowly gained the trust of Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, and after sitting out the season opener, Harmon did not miss a game. Registering only four tackles and no interceptions in his first six games, the sizable Harmon (6-foot-1, 205 pounds) ended the year making 31 more tackles and picking off two passes.
That progress allowed the Patriots brass to part ways with the relatively expensive veteran Steve Gregory, who started 25 of 28 games in two years in Foxborough. But don’t think that the leash on Harmon is overly long. If Harmon is not up to the task the Patriots could bring in a five-defensive back set or insert an array of backups, both seasoned and youthful, who will leap at the challenge.
On the seasoned side, the big name that stands out is Patrick Chung, a former 2009 second-round draft of the Patriots who once looked like he would become the leader of the secondary that now belongs to McCourty. After a one-year hiatus with the Philadelphia Eagles, where Chung encountered his first NFL season without an interception, he is ready to gain back what he had just a few seasons ago when he started virtually every game for Belichick.
Elsewhere if Harmon struggles, Belichick could plug in third-year Tavon Wilson from McCourty backup duties at free safety or sophomore Logan Ryan from fourth-string cornerback. Either way, Wilson and Ryan would have to show versatility to alter positions in the secondary, something Wilson and Ryan have already done during the early days of their career and something Bill Belichick admires in all his players. But for now, the spot is Duron Harmon’s to lose and how he performs could mean one of the league’s most formidable defenses or a lackluster one that once again relies on Tom Brady and the offense to carry them.