Make no mistake: the Patriots have two starters firmly entrenched at the cornerback position in Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore. However, that doesn’t mean there won’t be a hard fought training camp battle for playing time at the position.
Why? Because in today’s NFL, sub and nickel packages are more or less the base defense, especially for the Patriots. Thus, even the third and fourth cornerbacks on a team’s depth chart can see significant playing time. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the Patriots corners to watch in training camp.
Of anyone on the roster not named Malcolm or Stephon, Eric Rowe has the best shot at claiming significant playing time in 2017. His steady play in 2016, including a Super Bowl performance that saw him stick with Julio Jones stride-for-stride on some plays, gives him the inside track going into training camp. If there’s one thing that could prevent Rowe from getting on the field, it’s the fact that he’s primarily an outside cornerback, standing 6’1″. Butler and Gilmore are not going to give up many snaps from the outside, so Rowe will have to prove himself worthy as a slot corner in order to ensure he stays on the field consistently. Some of his challengers appear to fit the prototype for slot cornerbacks better than he does.
Cyrus Jones, a 2016 second-round pick from Alabama, had a very disappointing rookie season. He hardly saw the field as a defensive back and the only times he showed up on the stat sheet were for muffed punts. He’s reportedly been getting continued reps as a punt returner in minicamp, which could mean that Bill Belichick hasn’t lost all faith in the 23 year-old from a special teams perspective. However, his role on defense remains a mystery. This training camp will be a very important one for Jones. He has an opportunity to win some reps on defense by performing well against the Patriots’ many lethal slot weapons, including Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, and newbie burner Brandin Cooks. It doesn’t feel right to call a player’s second season “make or break”, but Jones’ rookie year was nightmarish enough that a similar showing in year two could have him out the door.
The lesser known of the two Joneses at cornerback for New England, Jonathan Jones was signed as a rookie free agent out of Auburn in 2016. He’s a speed demon and a special teams’ ace already at gunner. However, he wasn’t seen much on defense, knocking down just one pass all season. If he has a strong showing in training camp, don’t be surprised if he is the top nickel cornerback for this team in 2017. Like all of his counterparts, he benefits from having tough receivers to cover in the slot, which affords him the opportunity to make an impression on the coaching staff if he performs well.
Coleman’s easy to spot on the field because he’s always the player running five-yards behind his receiver. All jokes aside, Coleman has not been a consistent slot cornerback for the Patriots in his two seasons in New England. Given the amount of competition and depth at the position now, Coleman could find himself fighting for a roster spot in August. Given the relative youth of the two Joneses and the solid play of Rowe, Coleman is the cornerback who finds himself facing the biggest uphill battle for playing time and a roster spot heading into training camp.