The Patriots secondary has quietly been one of the team's biggest strengths.Getty Images

It's no secret that the Patriots have a good amount of key players hitting the free agent market this offseason.

It's part of the reason why they traded away effective defensive members of the team in Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins ahead of time. You just can't re-sign everybody.

Now, the Patriots will focus on guys like Malcolm Butler, Dont'a Hightower and Martellus Bennett, among others.

But there are a couple other soon-to-be free agents who have been pretty instrumental to the team's success this season, though they don't come to mind immediately as players the Patriots have to re-sign.


In fact, neither are even the most popular player from Rutgers on the team — that title goes to Devin McCourty.

Both Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon have stepped up in big ways during the playoffs, but the truth is their impact in the secondary has been big all season.

Since Butler has become a shutdown corner in this league, quarterbacks are looking to throw elsewhere.

That means Ryan has been busy all season long. How busy? Well, he led all NFL cornerbacks in total tackles this season, with 92 — also a team high. That doesn't mean quarterbacks are completing passes on him a bunch. He's just in on a lot of tackles. According to NESN, Ryan allowed 56 receptions during the season.

Against the Texans in the divisional round, Ryan allowed three catches for just 9 yards with an interception. He made seven tackles in the game, including a sack. It was one of the best games he's played.

"Logan [Ryan] works hard," Bill Belichick told reporters. "He studies film relentlessly. He does a great job preparing for the overall passing game and the individual matchup that he has. I think he’s one of the hardest working players, one of our smarter players that’s great at communication and understanding it. He has a lot of experience in this system and he and Devin [McCourty], Pat [Chung], Duron [Harmon], the corners all work well together, but he’s kind of right in the middle of it."

Harmon also had a pick against the Texans, and followed that strong performance up with perhaps the biggest defensive play of the AFC Championship Game.

With the Patriots up 17-6 in the closing minutes of the second quarter, Ben Roethlisberger completed a pass to tight end Jesse James, who got past Pat Chung and headed for the end zone. As Chung wrapped himself around James' legs, the tight end dove for pay dirt. That's when he met Harmon, who came sprinting in from the end zone and put a shoulder into James, forcing his elbow to hit the ground inches short the goal line.

The Patriots then stopped the Steelers on three straight plays, and they settled for a field goal.

"That was huge," McCourty told reporters of the hit. "I told [Duron] as soon as he got in the sideline that was a big tackle, from Chung hustling and then [Duron] making sure he [James] didn’t get across the goal line. That gave us a shot and that’s how we play defensively.”

Both Ryan and Harmon have made roughly $3.8 million each over their first four years in the NFL. Ryan has never missed a game, and Harmon missed just one during his rookie year. Both will earn more money next season — and Ryan could be in for a big pay day.

But before any of that happens, expect them to be big parts of what could be their last game with the Patriots in Super Bowl LI.

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