It’s going to be a long list of current-era Patriots who will one day earn a red blazer for the Patriots Hall of Fame.
Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, and Julian Edelman are obvious. Dont’a Hightower and Devin McCourty will almost certainly get in. James White probably gets a jacket. Stephon Gilmore, Malcolm Butler, Kyle Van Noy, and Rob Ninkovich deserve serious consideration, too.
One guy down the list, if he is considered at all, is Patrick Chung. His career stats don’t jump off the page, and he doesn’t have that signature play, like Butler’s interception or Hightower’s strip-sack or Gilmore’s interception.
But inside Gillette Stadium, Chung is treated with the respect and admiration of a future Red Jacket.
Bill Belichick two years ago called Chung “one of the best players in the league.” The Patriots probably don’t win their last three Super Bowls without Chung doing a lot of dirty work.
“We’re lucky to have him,” Belichick said.
So it helps explain why Belichick, who basically copyrighted the maxim “get rid of a player a year too soon instead of a year too late,” is bringing Chung back for a 12th NFL season (11 with the Patriots), even though all signs pointed to the Patriots moving on.
Chung will be 33 years old in August. He’s coming off an injury-plagued season in which he missed three games and was hobbled in several more. The Patriots also added two similar players this offseason at his safety/linebacker hybrid position: free agent Adrian Phillips and second-round pick Kyle Dugger.
Yet not only is Belichick bringing Chung back, he gave him a pay raise. Chung was set to make up to $4 million this season, but signed a new contract May 19 that will pay him up to $6.25 million.
We all should be lucky enough to have someone love us as much as Belichick loves Chung.
This marks the fifth straight year that the supposedly tight-fisted Belichick has given Chung a raise. Chung’s original contracts called for him to make up to $14.2 million between 2016-20, and instead he will have made more than $26 million.
Belichick is betting that Chung’s heel and ankle injuries are behind him, and that he can regain his form as the ultimate four-down Swiss Army knife. Chung also can help mentor Dugger, whose rookie development could be hindered by the coronavirus pandemic.
Belichick even helped ease the financial sting for Chung in case he gets popped for a suspension under the NFL’s personal conduct policy for a drug charge from 2019. While Chung will make up to $6.25 million this year, the base salary is only $1.1 million, slightly above the veteran minimum. If Chung is suspended for a game or two, he would lose only his game checks ($64,705 per week), but get to keep his bonuses.
Chung had the charges conditionally dismissed in January, but the NFL said it is still considering his case for potential discipline.
It’s fascinating to see how much respect Belichick still has for Chung despite his age and injury history.
Chung’s first go-around with the Patriots was a flop. A second-round pick in 2009, Chung was allowed to sign with the Eagles in free agency in 2013. But Belichick has said the coaches figured out a much better way to utilize Chung after re-signing him in 2014, using him as a run defender near the line of scrimmage and a man-coverage defender against tight ends. In Chung’s first stint, he was mostly used as a deep zone safety, and he felt lost in space.
“A big part of it [was] mistakes that I personally made — it didn’t work out the way that we hoped it would,” Belichick said in 2018. “But we got it right the second time.”
Now, Chung does a little bit of everything; he runs, tackles, covers, blitzes, returns kicks, and, until injuries slowed him 2019, was a top special teams contributor. Oversized safeties/undersized linebackers like Chung are becoming the most important defenders in the league.
“He works with the corners, the safeties, the linebackers," Belichick said two years ago. "He even gets involved with the defensive linemen because of his proximity to the line of scrimmage on a lot of plays. He’s played in every phase of the kicking game for us — punt, punt return, kickoff, kickoff return. He’s a very dependable player.”
If Belichick needs someone to return a kick, Chung raises his hand (three career punt returns, nine kickoff returns). If Belichick needs someone to play scout-team offense, Chung raises his hand.
“With players like Pat, Mike [Vrabel], Rodney [Harrison], they just never want to come off the field,” Belichick said. Chung “runs a lot of scout-team plays for us on offense, kind of like Rodney used to do. He just loves to get out there and play and compete. He’s in great condition. He can go all day.”
“He’s a great influence and role model for all of us, for everybody on the team — just his passion for football.”
Chung keeps a quiet profile off the field, and doesn’t fit the mold as a superstar. But the way Belichick treats him, the Patriots Hall of Fame may need to carve out a space for him one day.