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Adrian Phillips: Growing without Devin McCourty is 'ultimate test' for Patriots' secondary

There's much ado in New England about reviving the offense, but the Patriots' defense will also be facing a challenge it hasn't seen since 2009 -- rising to the occasion without Devin McCourty gracing the roster.

Adrian Phillips, who has spent the last three seasons manning the secondary alongside the Patriots great, recognizes the tall task ahead.

"We appreciate him for everything that he did, and obviously, we still keep in contact, but you have to find a way to move forward without him," Phillips said Tuesday at a youth football camp, per the Boston Globe. "That's the only way you can move forward. If you keep trying to find somebody to replace him or somebody to be like Dev -- 'Do this like Dev. Do that like Dev' -- we'll never be able to grow to where we need to be.

"This is like the ultimate test for our secondary to be able to grow, because he's always been that backbone for so long."

McCourty's March retirement leaves the Patriots short 13 years of experience under coach Bill Belichick, a run that included three Super Bowl titles, 35 interceptions, 110 passes defensed, 11 forced fumbles and a wealth of experience as lead communicator on New England's back end.

As is often the case in Foxborough, though, the well of talent to step up in his absence is far from dry. The 31-year-old Phillips is an All-Pro safety who will likely return to a full-time starting role after beginning just eight games on the field last year.

He'll do so next to fellow safety Kyle Dugger, a well-rounded defender who's collected seven interceptions across three seasons and scored two touchdowns in 2022. His playmaking ability makes him an easy candidate to shoulder some of the responsibilities vacated by McCourty that will now be spread to many.

"He's a freak," Phillips said of Dugger. "When you see guys like that, you see how the game is changing a lot, because you really don't see guys like 6-foot-2, running 4.3, being able to cover anyone on the field and be able to knock anybody out. He can do that."

New England has solid depth behind them in Jabrill Peppers and Jalen Mills.

Plus, the club also replenished the secondary in the first round of April's draft, when cornerback Christian Gonzalez unexpectedly fell into its lap at No. 17 overall.

It will take a collective effort, something Dugger likewise recognized when speaking at the same camp as Phillips, but the pieces do exist to bridge the McCourty-sized gap.

"You can't just replace a guy like Devin," Dugger said. "We're just going to have to make sure we're communicating and talking. Communication will be important and help tremendously."

New England's defensive excellence under Belichick has been one of the team's calling cards before McCourty arrived in 2010 as a first-round pick, and it continues to be an expectation after he's left.

Phillips, Dugger and Co. appear up to the task. Time will tell if they find their own way to carry the legacy, which would likely include giving the Pats a scoring defense in the top half of the league for an 18th consecutive season.

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