After five years as a member of the Patriots, Devin McCourty is getting a firsthand taste of what the business of the NFL is all about.
The safety is on the verge of becoming a free agent — barring a last-minute deal from the Patriots — and he’s excited for the opportunity.
“My mom keeps telling me this whole time, ‘You’re not going to play football for that long, you have to take advantage of every opportunity that comes along,’ ” said McCourty Tuesday night. “Having a twin brother [Jason, a cornerback for the Titans] that wasn’t a free agent — he signed an extension with Tennessee — it’s an exciting time for both of us, and really my whole family.”
Free agency does not officially start until March 10 at 4 p.m., though the three-day “legal tampering” period, when other teams can negotiate with potential free agents, begins Saturday at 4 p.m.
Although he was not given the franchise tag by the Patriots, McCourty said the move didn’t surprise him as much as it may have surprised others. He said he still wants to return to New England, and feels the Patriots want him back as well.
“Now I have the ability to go to any team, and to me, that includes the Patriots, that includes any team that shows interest,” McCourty said. “I want to be back, and they want me back, too, but it comes down to the business of everything, and being a free agent, I have the chance to see what other teams are saying, too.”
Given that he will be the best safety on the market, McCourty figures to draw plenty of interest.
New England’s first-round draft pick in 2010 was famously panned by some draft observers who believed the Rutgers standout would be a special teams ace but not a star defensive player. McCourty silenced the doubters by being named a Pro Bowler and second-team All-Pro as a rookie.
He did struggle on the field in his second season, but McCourty never let it get to him, always with his face in his iPad, watching film and trying to get better. Off the field, he had been named a captain and was quickly establishing himself as the quintessential Bill Belichick-era Patriot: smart, versatile, a great teammate, and someone who always did his job.
Those qualities were underscored midway through the 2012 season, when he served as the team’s primary kickoff returner and he was also forced to play safety after the Patriots were hit with a spate of injuries in the secondary. But there he blossomed, able to see the whole field in front of him, and able to communicate with his teammates to get them in the best position.
It also wasn’t an accident that when New England acquired malcontent Aqib Talib in 2012, lockers were shuffled to put him next to McCourty, who could not only help with the playbook but teach him how things are done at Gillette Stadium.
A full-time starter at safety beginning in 2013, McCourty joined a short list of players named All-Pro at both corner and safety when he was named to the second team after the 2013 season.
But this past season, the last of his rookie contract, even as Belichick said in September, “If we had more players like Devin McCourty . . . but we’re lucky to have one. He’d be a hard guy to replace,” there were no serious talks of an extension between the Patriots and McCourty’s agents.
When the 2014 season ended with the Patriots winning Super Bowl XLIX but without a new deal in place, the reality that McCourty might have played his last game for New England began to sink in.
“To me, right when the season ended, even though they still had time no other team could talk to me, and making it through the season and not having an extension, you have to know as a player you might not be there,” he said.
“It’s tough when you play somewhere for five years, I played a lot of football there, I have people hitting me up, ‘How can you think that?’ But to me I’d be a fool to get all the way through the season and not think about I could be somewhere else.
“I’ve been thinking that for the past month, that I could be on another team.”
McCourty knows not every team will be interested in signing him, but he’s also confident there are several that will. If Jason McCourty has any say in it, the Titans will be one of those clubs. Devin acknowledged the two dream of playing together again one day, but it also has to be a situation that’s the best fit.
“Now I have the choice of whatever team says, ‘We want you to come play for us,’ so to me, as a player, you can’t ask for a better situation to have than that,” he said.
“[Andy Simms, one of his agents] keeps telling me to keep an open mind to everything, not think about what team has this, what team has that, just being open to see what team wants me. A team that looks good on paper might not want my services.
“I’m just trying to keep an open mind and see what is best for me as I continue my career.”
After 88 games (including playoffs) and 88 starts, 339 tackles, 18 interceptions, 4 straight AFC Championship appearances, and two Super Bowl appearances, the win in Super Bowl XLIX may have been McCourty’s last as a Patriot.
“If that was the last game, then what a way to go out,” he said.
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Ray Ventrone, oft-released as a defensive back/special-teamer in his four years in New England, was hired as assistant special teams coach. Ventrone replaces Joe Judge, who bumped up to take over as special teams coach when Scott O’Brien retired.