The Patriots have some work to do when it comes to the secondary, mainly signing their top two players (Revis, McCourty) to new contracts. New England has the option to keep Revis at a high cap number, so technically he is under contract. Devin McCourty is unrestricted and well-liked; teams are going to line up to sign him, so keeping him may not be as easy as some think. If the Patriots are forced to let him walk, replacing him won't be easy because of his smarts and coverage skills. The draft is the place to start when talking replacements, and safety Derron Smith of Fresno State may be the guy to get.
The 5'11, 197 pound Smith is a true free safety, something the Patriots must target if they lose McCourty. There are safeties rated higher overall, but if you want the best pure free safety, Smith is your guy. Smith played his high school football in California, receiving a three-star rating playing quarterback, cornerback, safety and punter.
Smith played in all 13 games his freshman year, getting reps on special teams and eventually working his way into the defense. He racked up 28 tackles, one for a loss, with his one start being his best game. Smith picked up seven tackles, six solo, and one for a loss against New Mexico State. Smith's sophomore year was cut short after just three games when he broke his arm against North Dakota. In those three games, we got a glimpse of what Smith could do- 12 solo tackles, two assists, one tackles for loss, one forced fumble, two passes defended, and one interception. Those are great numbers for three games, and also a preview of things to come.
Smith appealed to the NCAA for a medical redshirt after his sophomore year was cut short, and he was approved, gaining a year of eligibility. In Smith's redshirt sophomore year, he broke out with 61 solo tackles, 18 assists, one tackle for loss, one forced fumble, two passes defended and six interceptions. He was a ballhawk all season, with his best game coming at Oregon when he racked up 13 tackles. Smith was a big part of pass defense that finished second in the country in 2012. Smith also started all 13 games at safety, which was a good sign after coming back from injury. Smith was a First-Team all Mountain West selection and appeared on the radar of the NFL.
2013 was more of the same from Smith; 59 solo tackles, 28 assists, eight tackles for loss, four sacks, six passes defended, and seven interceptions. The accolades started to pour in at that point; First-team All Mountain West, MVP of the Mountain West Championship Game, and he made the preseason watch lists for the Chuck Bednarik Award, Jim Thorpe Award, and the Lott Impact Trophy. Smith basically put up the same exact amount of solo tackles, but he found a way to be around the ball even more, upping his assists by ten and picking up an impressive four sacks. Smith probably won't run more than a 4.5 in the forty, but his football speed and instincts are impressive.
In his senior season, passing offenses finally decided that staying away from Smith was the smart thing to do. Smith finished with 66 solo tackles, 27 assists, 2.5 tackles for loss, two fumble recoveries, seven passes broken up and one interception. Smith played in 14 games, so he remained healthy again. He started 40 straight games after his lost season of 2011. Smith did struggle at times during his senior season, trying to do more than he physically could and running himself out of position, but that's a pretty easy fix with strong coaching.
Any team that needs a safety that can cover would love to have Derron Smith, but a team like New England that may lose one of the best free safeties may need to value him higher because they need to fill a big hole. This is all mute if McCourty re-signs, but again, that is far from a guarantee. Wherever Smith does get drafted, he is going to make an impact and will probably start immediately.