The past year has illustrated that the Patriots have unfortunate inconsistency in their secondary that needs to be addressed. After the signing of Stephon Gilmore last offseason, many expected New England to have one of the best secondaries in the league. Instead, the Patriots had a historically bad coverage unit over the first quarter of the 2017 season. They managed to settle in throughout the season as Gilmore became more comfortable and their schemes changed. However, they completely fell off the map again in the Super Bowl, spending the entire night getting torched by Nick Foles and the Eagles offense. Malcolm Butler did not play in that game, and just a short time later was departing New England for a massive contract with the Tennessee Titans.
The Patriots aren’t entirely devoid of depth or talent at cornerback. They currently have Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe, and they will be getting Cyrus Jones and Jonathan Jones back from injury. They also signed Jason McCourty this offseason. However, Rowe’s performance in the Super Bowl was atrocious, Jonathan Jones shows flashes of high-level play but not consistently, and Cyrus Jones will not even make it through camp if he plays like he did in his first year with the team. The Patriots need young, high-end talent at the position to develop alongside Stephon Gilmore, which is why they will likely address the position in the draft.
Denzel Ward out of Ohio State is the one cornerback prospect that may be out of reach for the Patriots, as some projections have him going as high as sixth overall to Indianapolis. However, there are a number of high-end and mid-level players that the Patriots could target.
Throughout the past few weeks, there have been a number of draft projections that show New England selecting Josh Jackson out of Iowa. At 6’1 192 lbs, Jackson is a long cornerback with great size and fantastic ball skills. He had 27 pass breakups last season, a testament to his ability to play the ball and not the man. He also has a tendency to make big plays in big moments, which is something the Patriots missed last year. Jackson does come with inexperience issues; he can get fooled by early fakes and struggles with crossing routes. He has also been an inconsistent tackler, which would be a problem after losing Butler who was the team’s best open field-tackler. Drafting Jackson would give the Patriots two long, man-coverage specialists on the outside, which would give them flexibility at the nickel corner spot with Cyrus Jones and Jonathan Jones.
Mike Hughes out of UCF is an interesting developmental prospect that the Patriots could be interested in. At 5’10 189 lbs, Hughes is a smaller, quicker player who excels at physical man coverage. He consistently gets good jams at the line of scrimmage and has a penchant for throwing receivers off their routes. The problem with Hughes is that he does not have a lot of experience, having started just one full season in college. There will certainly be a steep learning curve that could see some blown coverages early on in his career. However, Hughes is also a brilliant returner, which could make him a very intriguing option for the Patriots, especially after the departures of both Danny Amendola and Dion Lewis.
A Day Two selection that the Patriots could be interested in is Duke Dawson out of Florida. The 5’10 208 lb senior is a talented press cover corner who beats receivers with good footwork and impressive acceleration. He also has great instincts and has a sixth sense for predicting what slot receivers are doing with their routes. Dawson is not the most athletic player and can get beat by receivers with excessive speed. However, these issues may be negated by his aggressiveness against the run game, which was one of Butler’s best qualities. Dawson would be an upgrade at the nickel corner position, allowing the Patriots to have a rotation at the outside corner spot opposite Gilmore. Dawson is also the only cornerback that the Patriots have had in for an official team visit during the pre-draft process).
The Patriots have options at the cornerback position. They are certainly lacking the top-end talent to pair alongside Stephon Gilmore. However, they have enough depth that they may be willing to pass on a cornerback in the draft if they see other players available that they are interested in. If they were to draft a cornerback, I believe Hughes and Dawson are the two most likely players that the team will be deciding between.
Until next time – B$