The New England Patriots officially open training camp this Thursday! With that, I will be continuing my positional breakdown of the Patriots’ roster heading into training camp. Today we look at the cornerbacks.
Long Shots (2): A.J. Moore, Jomal Wiltz
Going into last season, it looked like the Patriots had one of the league’s best cornerback groups. Stephon Gilmore and Malcolm Butler had both proven themselves to be quality number one cornerbacks, Eric Rowe had continuously improved throughout the course of the 2016 season, and many were hoping for a second-year jump from Cyrus Jones. Unfortunately, the group never quite fulfilled their potential. Gilmore struggled to grasp his assignments early on, but to his credit, he made significant strides toward the end of the season. Butler couldn’t quite replicate his outstanding 2015 and 2016 campaigns and was eventually benched for the Super Bowl for unknown reasons. With Gilmore and Butler entrenched as the Patriots’ starting outside cornerbacks, Rowe was moved into the slot and struggled there throughout the year. Jones tore his ACL during the preseason and missed the entire 2017 season. The Patriots certainly could have used special teams standout and backup slot corner Jonathan Jones during the Super Bowl, but he landed on the injured reserve after suffering a leg injury during garbage time of the Patriots’ Divisional Round matchup against the Tennessee Titans. Core special teamer Johnson Bademosi filled in admirably for Gilmore early in the season, but missed several key tackles during the Super Bowl. To make things worse, the Patriots’ anemic pass rush meant that their defensive backs were spending more time in coverage than they should have. And to add insult to injury, Justin Coleman — who the Patriots had traded along with a fifth round pick to the Seattle Seahawks for Cassius Marsh — proved to be a solid starting slot corner for his new team. However, while the group wasn’t perfect last year, it performed pretty well considering that Gilmore was new to the system, Rowe was playing out of position, and Jonathan Jones and Bademosi were mainly special teamers that had to fill in due to injuries.
Going into the 2018 season, the Patriots have a lot of potential, but very little known quantities at the position. Gilmore is by far the best cornerback on the team and will be heavily relied upon this year as the team’s number one cornerback, but there will be a lot of competition for playing time behind him.
Second-round pick Duke Dawson will likely start the season as the team’s starting slot cornerback despite having not yet played an NFL snap. His versatility will help the Patriots match up better with slot receivers this year.
Jonathan Jones will make the team primarily for his special teams ability, but he will likely see some more playing time at slot cornerback this year as well. If Dawson is not ready to be a day one starter, Jones will likely get the nod for the season opener.
Seventh-round draft pick Keion Crossen will likely face an uphill battle to make the roster as the team’s third slot cornerback, but he did impress early on during OTAs before eventually being sidelined with an injury. If he can stay healthy enough and demonstrate special teams value, he could secure himself a roster spot. If not, he will likely be a practice squad candidate.
Undrafted rookie J.C. Jackson was projected to go in the fourth or fifth round before going undrafted due to character concerns. He was receiving first team reps and performed pretty well during OTAs and will need to continue his good play during training camp if he wants to land a spot on the roster.
Former second-round pick Cyrus Jones will need to demonstrate some considerable progress this year if he wants to make the team. He does have the inside track to a roster spot if he can prove himself as a reliable returner, but he will also need to show that he can be a solid cornerback in this league. If he doesn’t wow during training camp, he may end up being cut.
Former practice squad player Ryan Lewis has the size and speed that the Patriots like in their cornerbacks, but will face some strong competition. His experience in the system would need to be what separates himself from the rest of the young players.
Veteran Jason McCourty, captain Devin McCourty’s brother, brings a unique presence to the team. His NFL experience and his experience playing with his brother would likely help defensive communication in-game, but he was held out of OTAs for an undisclosed reason. Plenty of veterans have come to New England and been cut after spending most of training camp hurt. McCourty will need to stay healthy and on the field during camp if he wants to make the team.
I would consider Eric Rowe to be a roster lock, but it is possible that the Patriots try to trade Rowe and go with someone younger considering that he is in the last year of his rookie contract. He may be one of the team’s better outside corners, but will likely need to show some improvement in the slot. If others can prove to be more versatile, Rowe might find himself the victim of a numbers game.
Undrafted rookie A.J. Moore is probably the least likely to make the roster this year, but will get an opportunity to prove himself over the next few weeks. Jomal Wiltz spent last year on the practice squad, and will need to impress the coaches throughout camp if he wants to stick around.
While the group does lack top-end talent, each one of these players is NFL-caliber talent and will likely at least make a practice squad somewhere. It is hard to predict how the group shapes up right now considering that most of the five or six spots will be claimed during training camp. As of right now, however, I believe that the veterans have a better chance of making the team.
Roster (6): Duke Dawson, Stephon Gilmore, Cyrus Jones, Jonathan Jones, Jason McCourty, Eric Rowe
Practice Squad (1): Keion Crossen
Cut (3): J.C. Jackson (will likely be claimed off waivers), Ryan Lewis (will likely be claimed off waivers), A.J. Moore, Jomal Wiltz
Again, this prediction is just a guess and is subject to change as training camp unfolds.
Stay tuned next week, as I wrap up this series by discussing the safeties and special teamers!
Please also check out parts one through nine here.