Devin McCourty proved to be all these things in just his rookie season with the New England Patriots. Soon after the 2010 NFL drabft, many suggested that selecting McCourty with the 27th overall pick was unnecessary for the Patriots with Leigh Bodden cemented as the #1 cornerback, the positive play of Darius Butler, and depth on the roster to fill the nickel and dime spots. Others called it a reach.
With the Patriots’ roster depth, many expected McCourty’s 2010 contribution to be on special teams. However, Bodden went down with a torn rotator cuff injury early in the season and was put on injured reserve. McCourty stepped right into the #1 corner spot and dominated a position that rookies traditionally struggle with.
Devin recently spent some time talking with us about his rookie season, how Tom Brady and Randy Moss helped with his development, as well as winning PFF’s Rookie of the Year award.
Steve Wyremski (SW): How’s the offseason been treating you?
Devin McCourty (DM): It’s been different, but it hasn’t been too bad. I’ve been back at Rutgers working out with a bunch of guys that came out [of school] this year and are trying to get signed as free agents [in the NFL]. Guys have also come back that are already in the NFL, so we’re working out every day and trying to get ready.
SW: Have you been doing anything different this year as compared to last year’s offseason when you were just coming in to the league as a rookie?
DM: I wouldn’t say real different, but things I’ve learned as far as working out and different drills that I learned in New England are [now used].
SW: You played with your twin brother Jason in high school (now plays for the Titans) and also through your time at Rutgers other than your senior season when he was already in the NFL. How difficult has it been to play without him for the last two years?
DM: It was probably more difficult my senior year at Rutgers being accustomed to him being in that environment going through games and practice. My senior year, I had to get used to that, especially in the offseason. I had to adjust. I had to get used to not really being on my own … but try to open up and get close to my younger teammates that I wasn’t used to having around. Once I was able to do that my senior year, going to the NFL was easier.
SW: Coming out of Rutgers, you were selected by the Pats 27th overall. Looking back at your rookie season, what was the biggest adjustment for you?
DM: The biggest adjustment was consistency. In college, you make a play. Sometimes you make a great play and [others] a bad play, but your bad play won’t be [terrible] because athletically you were able to do something to stick right with a guy, or something. I learned quick in the NFL that any little mistake will be exploited. I felt like if you didn’t know what you are doing on a play, the quarterback and the offense always found a way to get to your side and exploit it. With the talent level so high and so many great players, you need to make sure you’re always consistent and on top of your game, especially at corner.
SW: A lot of veteran quarterbacks target rookie corners. Did you feel that you were a victim of that?
DM: Oh, definitely. Starting in the first game and the first play against the Bengals, I lined up against Terrell Owens and they went deep to try and throw a fade route. I remember coming into the season, my corner’s coach told me, “Get ready, you’re the rookie corner, you’re starting, and they’re going to attack you.” I think it helped in practice going against guys like Randy Moss, Wes Welker and lining up against Tom Brady. I came into the season with some confidence as a rookie from going against those guys.
SW: You had a lot of success last year, which I want to talk about in a bit, but take me through your most memorable rookie struggle. Any time early in the season where you were like, “Man, that guy just toasted me. I gotta get my act together.”
DM: The first struggle came right in training camp. It seemed like I was lining up against Randy Moss a lot. We were doing a two-minute drill and some other drills and he beat me deep maybe five times in two days. It felt like it was happening every other play. It was frustrating. My coach was trying to teach me different techniques and in my head I’m just like, “it feels like I’m playing it pretty good; he’s just making a great catch.” That was a little bit of a learning curve – trying to understand that even though you’re in great position and playing pretty good, [you have to] finish to try and stop the guy from making a great catch.
During the season, I would say week 2 when lost to the Jets playing one of the worst games of the year and learning how to rebound in the NFL after playing a bad game as a rookie cornerback. I think I gave up two touchdowns that game. The coaches helped me out a lot just talking to me about being in the NFL, having a bad game and watching film to make sure you come back strong so it doesn’t become a habit/a pattern and people start attacking you because you’re not playing well.
SW: [Explain Pro Football Focus.] We ranked you as the 9th best corner in 2010. How were you able to adjust so quickly to the NFL game and succeed in just your first year in the league?
DM: By not thinking about it. Being in New England, the coaching staff and some of the players are very precise. They’re on top of everything, so I just followed the lead of everybody else. [Whether it be] how they practice, how they took care of their body off the field, how they approach the game mentally, or how they watch film. In sitting in meetings with Coach Belichick and hearing how he explains film or how he looks at things, I was able to use that and transition it. I think of it as something simple: just having that mentality of listening to other people and believing in what they’re saying helped me out the most.
SW: Yeah, I read a lot during the season that you weren’t afraid to ask questions of some of the veterans, particularly in the secondary. Who’d you turn to the most throughout the year and what were you asking of those guys?
DM: As a corner, Leigh Bodden was a person [I turned to] in training camp before he got hurt and was on IR. A lot of us young corners turned to him because he has nine years in the NFL. He’s had a lot of experience and learned a lot from being around other players on different teams. We were able to get different techniques and a mentality for playing corner from him.
During the year: our safeties, especially James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather. I asked them a bunch of questions about watching film and why coaches were saying certain things. Those two guys were big, especially early in the season and around that mid-way point when I felt like I got [into] the swing of things.
SW: Breaking down your season, the first 10 weeks you seemed to be adapting and learning the NFL game. From week 11 on, you really seemed to get your bearings and performed pretty well. We ranked every single one of your games from week 11 on positive ratings. What happened for you week 11 and forward?
DM: I think my confidence went up a lot. Before we played San Diego, my coach and me had drills on how to play the deep ball and how to make a play on it. When we played San Diego, they threw a deep ball and I was able to make an interception.
My coach kept [telling me that] if I could take what I learned in practice and bring it to the field on game day, I could start to make plays and become a better player. I started believing that and taking the field with a lot more confidence. I knew guys were going to throw at me and I’d have opportunities. I started just telling myself to try and make a play or two and get [my] hands on the ball to intercept it because I [knew] I was going to get tested. Once I was able to bring that confidence to the field each Sunday and started making plays, I really believed it. I kind of got a rhythm going and it took off. Each week, I felt more and more comfortable being out there.
SW: Tom Brady and Randy Moss are two of the better players and their respective positions in NFL history. What’d those guys teach you?
DM: A lot of the teaching came on the practice field going against those guys day in and day out whether it be one-on-ones with Randy or a team drill. I remember Tom Brady telling me to keep going and keep playing. [Brady told] me little things here and there because he’s seeing the cornerback from the quarterback position. He let me know a couple of times what he saw [with] how I lined up. I felt like if I could … not fool him, but get better and be in the right position in practice going against him, that’d help me a lot in games. He’s one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL, so if you can be close to making a play in practice, in a game it could turn into making a big play. That’s what ended up happening through the year.
I’ll say one thing about those guys – it’s not just how well they play and how they execute, being able to pick their brains and get some of their knowledge from playing so many years in the NFL helped me the most.
SW: Back in September after that week 2 Jets game, Coach Rex Ryan said this about you: “He reminds me of Darrelle Revis because he loves to play”. Coming from a respected defensive coach … how’d you feel about that?
DM: I was very thankful. It’s always good as a player when an opposing coaches give their opinion. I remember in the NFL draft process sitting with Rex Ryan. The Jets came and worked me out and I paid a visit to the Jets and [we talked about] football, different things I did in college, and the different thing the Jets do. It was a real positive visit because of [Rex Ryan’s] knowledge of the game and me learning from talking to him about defense in the couple of minutes we had. I was happy that I was able to impress a coach, especially a defensive coach of his caliber. Hearing that from him was real big just knowing that I was doing the right things and my approach to football is right. To compare me to a top corner in the NFL right now … I took it as a great compliment.
SW: You hear people call corner’s a “shutdown corner” or a “ball hawk”. If you were to describe yourself as a corner in one or two words, what would you say and why?
DM: I still feel I’m a developing corner, but some day I want people to look at my game and say I’m a ball hawk. I feel like with one year in the NFL, you really can’t say anything about my game. In the next two to three years, I was people to say, “He’s a ball hawk. He takes on all challenges and wants to play as a competitor.”
SW: You talk about having one successful year in the NFL. ESPN ranked the top corners in the game recently. I’m sure you saw it. You were ranked #8 on that list. Some people have said you don’t deserve to be on that list exactly for the reason you said – because you’ve only played in the NFL for one year. What do you say to those people?
DM: I don’t say anything to them. I think everyone is entitled to their own opinion. My goal going into this season and the past season isn’t to see how many rankings I can make or individual awards I can get. It’s just to get better and, most importantly, to win. That’s everyone’s goal each year … to win. You’re always going to have people say you’re not this, or you’re not that. Just like when I got drafted, people thought it was a bad pick. My goal is to just get better. I feel like going into this next year is very important to make the transition to my second year. People have already told me it’s a pretty hard step, so I’ve just been working out really hard this offseason to try and prepare myself.
SW: You had 7 picks in 2010, three of those came against some of the NFL’s top quarterbacks and two who will go down as two of the best in NFL history (Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers). Talk about that accomplishment as a rookie.
DM: It was exciting. Watching those guys play … Philip Rivers in college and Brett Farve in the NFL, I would be lying if I said I didn’t notice intercepting those three guys. I felt a special accomplishment because those are guys that I looked up to. In the grand scheme of things, it’s just one interception, but as a young player it’s an honor because not many players [make plays against the three of them].
SW: In your mind, what makes the best or a prototypical dominant corner?
DM: Being a competitor. I remember being in college and learning quick that you’re not going to be able to stop every play, but being able to go out there and compete each play, get after it and not let [the opponent] have a field day and walk all over [your] part of the field is big as a corner. If you’re not willing to compete out there, nothing positive is going to happen.
SW: You’d obviously heard about Coach Belichick being a “football genius” before you were drafted by the Patriots. After a year of playing with him, what are your thoughts on Coach Belichick?
DM: I still feel the same way. As a young player, especially a young player, I’m fortunate to be on that team and learning from a guy of Coach Belichick’s caliber. His style of coaching has helped me out a lot because I really understand it. Sometimes with a great coach, the coaching style may not be the best thing for you, but I feel his style of coaching fits me. I’m excited about the years to come being in New England.
SW: I want to talk a little about the AFC East rivalries. You grew up watching the Jets in New Jersey and you’re familiar with the Jets-Pats rivalry. You end up playing the Jets three times [in your rookie season]. How’d the rivalry compare on the field to watching it as a fan.
DM: It’s a big step up. When you watch the rivalry, you can see how high the intensity is. [Once] you’re involved in it, you understand the rivalry even more because it’s a division opponent. Last year, we ended up playing them in the playoffs. When you see a team three times, it’s totally different. You already know what the other is doing. I realized the intensity of that match-up right way. I think it’s a great rivalry to see two passionate teams that love to compete. I love being a part of it.
SW: At Pro Football Focus, we named our own rookie of the year. You were that guy. You were a finalist for Pepsi NFL Rookie of the Year, but Ndamukong Suh won the award. Many say that you should have won the award given you season performance given that you were in the playoffs and it’s difficult to adapt to the corner position in the NFL. What are your thoughts on that?
DM: It’s an honor to just be nominated or to be named your rookie of the year. Like I said, even if someone speaks positively or badly, you just got to be positive and understand that everyone is going to have their own opinion. [My] job is to go out there and play well and help [the] team win. I watched Ndamukong Suh play a number of times and he’s deserving of all awards he got just because of how dominant he was on the field. I respect other people’s opinions that felt that what I did was very impressive.
SW: NFL Rookie of the Year finalist, 2011 Pro Bowl player, you start all 16 games in your rookie season, and you make the playoffs in your rookie season. Can it get any better than this?
DM: Yeah, I feel like I can definitely get better as a player. Like you said earlier, after week 11, I just took off. I imagine what if I can come into the season and play well from week 1 and keep getting better (not just week 11 through week 16). This year, we lost in our first playoff game and a goal of every player is to make it to the Super Bowl and win the Super Bowl. I can’t wait to get another chance at it. I feel like it can get a lot better.
SW: Overall, reflecting on your rookie season – how does it compare to your expectations?
DM: It passed all expectations. I don’t try to put numbers on how productive I’m going to be. I’m never going to come into the season and say I’m going to get 4 interceptions, etc. I just want to help my team win. That’s what I said to myself coming into the season. I never would have imagined myself coming in and being able to have the impact that I had as a rookie cornerback. To just play so many games and so many plays … I just wasn’t expecting that. It was truly a blessing being out there.
Could those haters who called the Patriots’ Devin McCourty pick in the 2010 NFL Draft a reach have been more wrong? Devin really burst onto the NFL scene in his rookie season leading the NFL in interceptions. That’s a serious feat in a corner’s first NFL season.
Is Devin McCourty going to be for these Patriots what Ty Law was to the franchise back in the early 2000’s? It’s certainly looks that way after his first season.
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