For the first time since 2013, there won’t be a number 21 playing cornerback for the New England Patriots. The cornerback position has been in the spotlight ever since the infamous Malcolm Butler Super Bowl benching, and New England has a big hole to fill on the starting defense. So how will the New England Patriots cornerback position shape out in 2018?
The Starters: Gilmore and McCourty
After a shaky September, cornerback Stephon Gilmore established himself as one of the best cornerbacks in the league throughout 2017. The first-year Patriot was arguably the best defensive player on the team and provided the lockdown presence New England needed. His biggest moment of the season came when he sealed a trip to the AFC Championship Game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, and in 2018 he’ll look to pick up where he left off. The Patriots have something special in Gilmore, and he’ll continue to take away the best weapon of opposing offenses.
As of this posting, it appears as though former Cleveland Browns cornerback Jason McCourty will take the starting spot opposite Gilmore. Jason McCourty, twin brother of fellow Patriot Devin McCourty, has been a solid number two starter throughout his career and is an absolute steal playing at a $3 million salary. Per Pro Football Focus, Jason McCourty finished 2017 as the 27th best cornerback in football. By comparison, recently departed cornerback Malcolm Butler finished 2017 ranked 51st.
On paper, the Patriots upgraded their defense with this move. While in reality Butler will probably bounce back from a down 2017, these are two similar caliber players. McCourty should be a seamless fit into the New England defense, and the Patriots probably won’t miss Butler in 2018.
The Depth: J. Jones, Rowe
While neither player will push for a starting spot, each one is certainly capable of contributing off the bench. Former undrafted free agent Jonathan Jones has quietly developed into one of the best slot cornerbacks in football. After being used almost exclusively as a special teamer in 2016, Jones saw more time with the defense in 2017.
All in all, Jones finished 2017 ranked as the 63rd best cornerback in football, ranking him around the middle of the league. He was lost for the season in the AFC Divisional Round against the Tennessee Titans, and his presence was sorely missed in Super Bowl LII.
Eric Rowe received a lot of criticism for his 2017 season, but most of it was unjust. At this point in time, the scouting report is out on Rowe. Rowe’s at his best when he’s playing physical, tight coverage on larger receivers. He can get beat by quickness and speed, but he’s perfect for taking away a team’s number two receiver. If paired with a safety over the top, he can help limit the opponent’s number one option. Essentially, he’s something of a poor man’s Logan Ryan. While he shouldn’t be the team’s best cornerback (and should never be left alone against Alshon Jeffery), he’s more than capable to serve as the Patriots first option off the bench.
The Mystery: Duke Dawson
The real wild card of this group is second-round pick, Duke Dawson. Dawson spent most of his time at Florida as the team’s slot corner and struggled when forced to play outside. In many ways, his skill set overlaps with that of Jonathan Jones. Jones is a great value, playing on an undrafted rookie’s deal, and his job shouldn’t be in question. At first glance, Dawson’s presence on the roster is somewhat redundant.
However, Bill Belichick may see something a bit less-conventional in Dawson. Dawson is large for a corner, plays well on the inside, and is a physical player against the run. In many ways, that also describes safety Patrick Chung. While Dawson isn’t the same run defender Chung is, the rookie has the potential to play Chung’s do-it-all role as a pseudo-linebacker, safety, and cornerback. It’s unlikely he’ll do that as a rookie, but he could be Belichick’s next pet project.
The Wild Cards: C. Jones, Ryan Lewis
Something New England fans have seen far too frequently is the Patriots drafting a defensive back in the second round only to see that player fighting for a roster spot entering his third season. This season that player isn’t Tavon Wilson, Ras-I Dowling, Jordan Richards, Jonathan Wilhite, or any of the countless others players who have been in this position in the past. This time, it’s Cyrus Jones who finds himself fighting to make the Patriots roster.
Jones was clearly not ready for the big stage his rookie season. He struggled on defense his rookie year, with his low point coming in Week Five against the Cleveland Browns. After struggling most of the game, Jones was ejected for throwing a punch at Browns receiver Andrew Hawkins. If his defensive play was concerning, his play on special teams was an outright disaster. Serving as the team’s on-again, off-again punt returner, Jones fumbled five of his returns, and the results were oftentimes disastrous.
Most of the issues with Jones were mental, something Jones admitted to prior to the 2017 preseason. Jones looked like he might have put those issues behind him that preseason, but an Achilles injury ended his season before it ever started. Entering his third season, Jones’ career in New England is very much on the line.
Ryan Lewis is an incredible athlete who spent the grand majority of 2017 on the Patriots practice squad. Lewis boasts blazing speed, posting a 4.37 40-yard dash, 6.87 three cone, and a 10’-8” broad jump at the 2017 NFL Combine. He’s never put his raw gifts together on defense, but if he does he could make a major impact. In a lot of ways, he could turn out to be the next Marquis Flowers.
Last Word on the Patriots Cornerbacks
Final Roster: Stephon Gilmore, Jason McCourty, Eric Rowe, Jonathan Jones, Duke Dawson, Ryan Lewis
The top five names on this list are pretty obvious, assuming Jonathan Jones is fully recovered from his Achilles injury. Seeing as he’s expected to participate in some capacity during training camp, having Jones ready for Week One feels like a safe assumption.
The hardest decision comes down to whether the Patriots decide to keep six cornerbacks, and if they do, who is the last one that makes it? While Cyrus Jones has the higher draft pedigree, he hasn’t done much on the NFL level to justify that selection. Maybe he can overcome the mental hurdles that plagued his rookie season, bu the NFL stage may just be a little too big for him.
Lewis has all the raw tools to be a great player in the league, and there’s nobody better at helping players reach their potential than Bill Belichick. He spent a year on the practice squad honing his skills and could sneak onto the roster. Like Jones, he also has special teams experience, which is a must for roster bubble candidates like Lewis.
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