FOXBOROUGH — It was a classic game on everyone’s favorite childhood staple, “Sesame Street”: “One of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn’t belong . . . ”
That’s pretty much how Devin McCourty feels when he’s reminded that he’s only the third player to be named Associated Press All-Pro at both cornerback and safety, joining Hall of Famers Ronnie Lott and Rod Woodson.
“We just happen to be on the same list,” McCourty said this past week, seeming a bit uncomfortable with the notion. “I’m not there with the guys that are there. You hear those names, it’s cool that at the end of that list my name would be in there, but I’m still working to get to that level to even be mentioned and it actually make sense with that list.
“I’m working toward that.”
The Patriots’ first-round pick in 2010, McCourty’s selection was panned by draft experts who saw the former Rutgers player as a special teamer, not a defensive cornerstone.
But he was a starter from Day 1 at cornerback, named a Pro Bowler and second-team All-Pro after just 16 NFL games.
There were concerns he was just a flash in the pan when his play dropped off in his second season, as the Patriots fielded one of the worst pass defenses in league history, at least statistically.
Then in 2012, as injuries piled up, coach Bill Belichick moved McCourty to safety, first out of necessity, and then because McCourty helped stabilize a unit that was still floundering.
It made sense. When Belichick drafted McCourty, he lauded him as one of the best defensive players he’s ever dealt with in the pre-draft process, able to break down everyone’s role on film, from the tackles to the linebackers to the corners, a player blessed with tremendous smarts.
No longer confined to one side of the field, able to literally take a step back and see everything in front of him, McCourty thrived. Last year, in his first full season at safety, he was once again named second-team All-Pro, which put him on that short list with Woodson and Lott.
Vince Wilfork believes that having McCourty at safety is the best way to take advantage of his intelligence, but he doesn’t believe for a second that his teammate couldn’t play corner at a high level if needed.
“From intelligence-wise, yes,” safety is the best place for McCourty, Wilfork said. “You’re in the middle of the field back there, you’re the last defense. You have to have somebody back there that understands offensively and defensively what we’re trying to do. But as far as playing safety because that’s where he fits physically, I think he can play either/or, safety or corner. He showed coming in as a rookie that he can play corner, he’s shown that he can play safety. His value to a team is very high.”
McCourty has been at safety full time since the 2012 playoff game against Houston, and he said it took about a season for everything to click. He’s grateful to have played last year alongside Steve Gregory, who was often praised by teammates for his intelligence.
“I feel like [Gregory] was always mentally ahead of what was happening in the game, ready for the checks to come, different plays to come, and I feel like that part of my game has gotten better this year,” McCourty said. “Really just watching him . . . I feel like the more you see, last year being my first full season back there, I started to kind of see how he saw things, how he saw it in advance and was ready, and then his mentality for each thing I started to see it as I was back there last year.”
Wilfork believes McCourty was being modest. He has felt McCourty would be a special player since the day he arrived in Foxborough because of his intelligence and work ethic. Likening himself to a proud big brother, Wilfork said despite McCourty’s success, he’s always striving to improve.
“That’s one thing that I really love about Devin, is he doesn’t think he has all the answers. He’s always trying to find a way to learn, and he always listens,” Wilfork said. “It’s not like he walks in there and says, ‘I’ve been here for X amount of years, this is how we’re going to do it, this is how we’ve got to do it.’ He’s always listening to people’s opinions and giving input, or listening to someone else’s input in the defense, and I think that’s another thing that makes him special. It’s so easy for somebody to get caught up in how long they’ve been playing and how long they’ve been here and think that carries more weight than actually being humble and sitting down and listening to somebody else or hear somebody else out in certain situations, and I think that’s what he does. He listens to all of us.”
When the Patriots acquired malcontent cornerback Aqib Talib in 2012, it was not a coincidence that lockers were shuffled in order for Talib to be placed next to McCourty, who could both help teach him the defense and what’s expected of players in New England.
When the Patriots signed Darrelle Revis this year, he got Talib’s old locker. Not because there were concerns over his behavior, but because it gave Revis perhaps the best person to learn from and bond with.
“Probably the best safety I’ve been around in all my years,” said Revis, who played with former All-Pro Dashon Goldson in Tampa Bay last year. “I’ve played [with] some great guys, and nothing to take away from those guys I’ve played with in the past, but I think he has the total package, just because he played corner, as well. He knows how to play both positions.
“I think him being moved back to safety a couple of years ago made his game evolve even more by playing both positions. He understands it so well, and trust me, he’s like a quarterback. He definitely is.”
Safeties coach Brian Flores appreciates what he has in McCourty.
“You really can’t quantify what he brings to the team. His leadership, his communication, he gets a lot of guys lined up, when guys have questions, they ask him. It’s like a coach on the field, quite honestly,” Flores said. “He’s a very important cog in our defense. It would be different without him.”
Belichick essentially agreed with Flores when he said earlier this season that McCourty would be a hard guy to replace, though the prospect exists that the coach will be trying to do just that next year.
This is the fifth and final year of McCourty’s rookie contract, and it is not expected that he will sign an extension with the team before the season ends.
If he hits free agency, he would be the best safety available. The Giants’ Antrel Rolle is slated to be a free agent, but he’s 31. McCourty is still just 27.
McCourty wants to remain a Patriot, but he’s seen enough in his relatively short career to know that anything is possible.
“I truly feel like that it will all work out how it’s all supposed to work out,” he said. “I want to stay here. But I also realize you just never know. You don’t know how it will play out.”