fb-pixelHow are the Patriots going to replace Devin McCourty? Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips have a few ideas. - The Boston Globe Skip to main content

How are the Patriots going to replace Devin McCourty? Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips have a few ideas.

Patriots safety Kyle Dugger led the NFL with three defensive touchdowns last season.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

LOWELL — Figuring out life without Devin McCourty will be a challenge for the Patriots’ secondary this season, but two veteran safeties believe the defense is up to the test.

Speaking before a session at the Sports International football camp Tuesday morning at UMass Lowell, Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips acknowledged that moving forward without McCourty — who retired in March after 13 seasons with the Patriots — is a sizable task. But as long as the communication is there, particularly among the veteran defensive backs who remain, it’ll be a big first step in the right direction.

“That’s the captain,” Phillips said with a smile of McCourty. “For a long time, he was commanding the secondary back there. It was pretty much his room, and with him being gone, that’s a big void to fill.


“But the good thing is we [have] a lot of veterans back there, and we have guys who have played the game at a high level, so we understand what it takes. We know if Dev is gone, there’s going to have to be a level of communication from everybody that they necessarily haven’t had before.”

“You can’t just replace a guy like Devin,” Dugger added. “We’re just going to have to make sure we’re communicating and talking. Communication will be important and help tremendously.”

McCourty, who was taken in the first round of the 2010 draft, was a steadying, consistent leader in the secondary for more than a decade, selected to the Pro Bowl at two positions (cornerback and safety). Even into his mid-30s, he remained a key part of the Patriots, intercepting four passes last season while playing 97 percent of the defensive snaps, tops on the team.

The task of replacing his production and leadership falls to a variety of defensive backs, including the 27-year-old Dugger, a strong safety who has emerged as an important player. Last year, he led the NFL with three defensive touchdowns, to go along with 78 tackles in 15 games.


“He’s a freak,”Phillips said of Dugger. “When you see guys like that, you see how the game is changing a lot, because you really don’t see guys like 6-foot-2, running 4.3s, being able to cover anyone on the field and be able to knock anybody out. He can do that.”

Heading into the last year of his rookie contract, Dugger has more experience in the system than any other safety on the roste, and is aware he’ll be asked to do more this season, particularly when it comes to leadership.

“I definitely have to be better and bring some of those younger guys along and do my job as a leader,” said Dugger. “Especially in the secondary, just bringing guys along and filling in spots maybe where they don’t understand things. Just doing what I can to help those guys understand everything better.”

The other safety who figures to have an expanded role is Phillips. The 31-year-old, who is entering his 10th NFL season, has played three years in New England. He could end up filling McCourty’s shoes as the deep safety, as well as serving as a guide for some of the younger members of the secondary.

“You’ll never replace a guy like that specifically, just because he’s like one in a million,” Phillips said of McCourty. “You don’t really come by them that often. But collectively as a group, you know you have the pieces to get it done and you can change up some stuff and make it confusing for the offenses.”


In the end, Phillips said the directive for the secondary in the post-McCourty era is simple.

“We just don’t have to reincarnate him. We appreciate him for everything that he did, and obviously, we still keep in contact, but you have to find a way to move forward without him,” Phillips said. “That’s the only way you can move forward. If you keep trying to find somebody to replace him or somebody to be like Dev — ‘Do this like Dev. Do that like Dev’ — we’ll never be able to grow to where we need to be.

“This is like the ultimate test for our secondary to be able to grow, because he’s always been that backbone for so long.”

Christopher Price can be reached at christopher.price@globe.com. Follow him @cpriceglobe.