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BEN VOLIN | ON FOOTBALL

Patriots need Devin McCourty’s leadership more than ever

On defense, Devin McCourty (32) has been a player the Patriots rallied around.
On defense, Devin McCourty (32) has been a player the Patriots rallied around.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Constructing a good defense in football is similar to constructing a good defense in baseball. You want to be strong up the middle. In baseball, that means having a good glove at catcher, shortstop, and center field. In football, it means having strong play and leadership from defensive tackle, inside linebacker, and safety.

“Those guys are critical for you in terms of the communication from the inside out,” Bill Belichick said back in January. “Safety is an important communication position in any defense, certainly in our defense. It’s critical for the communication to start from the inside and work its way out to the perimeter, with the safeties and the linebackers.”

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On Thursday, we learned that the Patriots are likely removing one “critical” piece of their locker room when Vince Wilfork announced that the team isn’t going to pick up his option bonus, making him a free agent come Tuesday. Wilfork wasn’t a defensive signal caller, but he did pretty much everything else for the Patriots in recent years: captain, mentor for teammates young and old, surrogate coach, team spokesman.

“You could talk to him about anything, about being on the field, off the field, personal life, anything,” Chandler Jones said before the Super Bowl. “He’s almost like having another coach in the film room.”

“When the big dog talks, everyone listens,” explained Brandon LaFell.

Another player who has everyone’s attention in the locker room is free safety Devin McCourty. In five seasons with the Patriots, he has emerged as a team captain, a vocal leader, an elite performer, and a shining example of how to conduct yourself on and off the field. It was McCourty, not any of the other veterans in the secondary, who gave the motivational speech and broke down the huddle before the Super Bowl.

“He’s not only one of our leaders, but he’s a vocal leader after that,” cornerback Kyle Arrington said. “He gets everybody aligned right. He’s like the quarterback of our defense.

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“It helps to have a great relationship. Everybody has a great relationship with him off the field as well. It makes it a little bit easier to communicate with his guys.”

But in a few days, the Patriots defense could be down two “critical” players. The Patriots didn’t use the franchise tag on McCourty, and now he’s set to hit the open market as the unquestioned No. 1 safety available in the league. The Eagles, Giants, and other teams are looming, armed with open wallets and the potential for McCourty to play closer to his childhood home in New Jersey.

Getting rid of Wilfork hurts, but it makes sense. He’s going to be 34 this fall, the Patriots have gotten 11 tremendous years from him, and they’re doing to him the same thing they did to Logan Mankins, Wes Welker, and countless others — getting rid of him a year too early instead of a year too late.

But Wilfork’s departure leaves a leadership void, and only heightens the importance of retaining McCourty, the other defensive captain. If McCourty leaves, too, the locker room will have a leadership black hole.

Perhaps Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, Jones, or Darrelle Revis could fill the void, but McCourty was the perfect quarterback for the defense, and without Wilfork, the Patriots could really use McCourty’s presence in the locker room as well as on the field.

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“He studies, he’s smart,” said Belichick. “He knows what we’re facing, how the teams are, what their tendencies are, how the quarterbacks play, and he knows what we’re doing.

“And he’s a good communicator. He works well with whoever he’s had back there. He’s played with a lot of different guys since he’s been here, but he’s always communicated well and worked well with those guys.”

The Patriots should be able to bring back the core of last year’s Super Bowl team — including Revis and McCourty — but changes come quickly in the NFL. The other leader of the defense is Jerod Mayo, and all signs point to 2015 being his last season in New England. The Patriots will need McCourty’s leadership over the next few years as the defense evolves and the team tries to get Tom Brady that fifth Super Bowl ring.

Free safety isn’t the most important defensive position on the field — that would be cornerback and pass rusher — and the Patriots could probably get by without McCourty. They could give Duron Harmon a bigger role, or move Logan Ryan to free safety, or sign a veteran free agent on the cheap.

But is starting over with a new communicator and center fielder the way to get better in 2015? Obviously, it’s a lot better for the Patriots to bring back the guy who has played five years in the system, has the communication down cold, and, most important, has the respect of everyone in the locker room.

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Plus, letting McCourty walk in free agency would be a terrible message to send to the rest of the locker room — that even if you do everything right, represent the organization in first-class fashion, and develop into an elite player, your reward is a one-way ticket out the door.

McCourty has learned a lot from Wilfork over the last five years.

“Vince has been like a big brother to me, as far as being able to teach me a lot about football, a lot about life,” McCourty said.

Now the Patriots need to keep McCourty around to carry Wilfork’s leadership torch.


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.