Since Bill Belichick took over as head coach of the New England Patriots in 2000, only one cornerback has been drafted that ran a 40-yard dash over 4.5 seconds (Alfonzo Dennard). Only one cornerback has been drafted with a 3-cone time over seven seconds in that same period (Willie Andrews) — they were seventh- and sixth-round picks, respectively. That should give you a pretty good idea of what New England is looking for at the position athletically.
The Patriots will likely take a cornerback with their first pick this year regardless of whether they sign free agent Aqib Talib. Dennard’s status is up in the air and Kyle Arrington and Marquice Cole are free agents. If Arrington walks in free agency, the team will at least be looking for a corner who can man the slot. If Talib is signed to either the franchise tag or exclusive-rights tag, the Patriots will be looking for a starting corner of the future. And if Dennard has to miss any time in 2013, New England will be looking for a starting cornerback.
Among the corners that participated in the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine, seven ran 40-yard dash times under 4.5 seconds and 3-cone times under seven seconds. Those players are: Boise State’s Jamar Taylor, Mississippi State’s Darius Slay, Southeastern Louisiana’s Robert Alford, Alabama’s Dee Milliner, Miami’s Brandon McGee, California’s Steve Williams and UConn’s Dwayne Gratz. Another seven players ran 40’s under 4.5 seconds, but did not run the 3-cone. Those players are: Washington’s Desmond Trufant, South Florida’s Kayvon Webster, Georgia Tech’s Rod Sweeting, Florida State’s Xavier Rhodes, NC State’s David Amerson, Illinois’ Terry Hawthorne and Michigan State’s Johnny Adams.
Among those players that best fit what the Patriots may be looking for in the first round are Taylor, Trufant and Rhodes. The Patriots have been known to take some surprises in the first two rounds, so we may not count Slay out either. Milliner will be long gone by the time the Patriots’ pick comes around, and New England doesn’t have a history of drafting small-school prospects, so Alford may be out of the mix, as well.
Last season the Patriots started the season in their typical zone-heavy defense. Devin McCourty hadn’t moved to safety yet and Arrington was the left cornerback. The secondary struggled and Dennard and Talib became the starters. The team was able to move to a man-heavy defense with the switch.
Taylor is among the best press-man corners in this draft, and would fit in very well across from either Dennard or Talib. He’s only 5-foot-10 (which the Patriots have historically had no problem with), but he’s physical with his hands at the line of scrimmage. He closes well and never allows many yards after the catch when he does allow a completion. He’s not the best corner in this draft at defending the run, but that’s not a strength of Dennard or Talib either. Taylor ran a 4.39 40 with a 6.82 3-cone time.
Trufant never flashed elite skills at Washington, but he’s a solid overall player with a high motor and good 4.38 speed. Trufant can play in the slot or outside, which is a major strength, he’s a good tackler and doesn’t get blocked out of plays easily. Trufant didn’t run the 3-cone, but based on tape, he is a fluid athlete.
Rhodes has great size at 6-foot-1, 210 pounds and has nice fluidity for his height. He ran a surprising 4.43 40 and didn’t compete in the 3-cone. The former Seminole is another physical player who will get in receivers’ faces at the line of scrimmage. He uses the sideline well in coverage and shows off a nice shuffle, which the Patriots use more than the backpedal, when he’s trailing receivers.
Three more players that could improve their 40 times at pro days and otherwise fit what the Patriots would be looking for in a cornerback are Rutgers’ Logan Ryan, LSU’s Tyrann Mathieu and UConn’s Blidi Wreh-Wilson. Ryan is not a shutdown cornerback, but he covers the slot well and looks extremely solid against the run. Belichick loves former Scarlet Knight players, and if Ryan gets the good word from Belichick’s son, Steve, who played at Rutgers in 2011, he could be a surprise first-round pick.
Wreh-Wilson is raw, but the Patriots have shown interest in UConn products in the past. He should improve his 40 at his pro day, and he showed off impressive agility with a 6.97 3-cone and 4.12 short shuttle. Wreh-Wilson excels in off-man coverage, but has great size at 6-foot-1 and could develop into a more physical corner with more coaching and strength training.
The biggest hurdle for all of these players now will be to prove to the Patriots in interviews that they have the intelligence to play in New England. Belichick became enamored with McCourty in the draft process because he could tell you what every defensive player on the field did on a given play. You have to be a very specific person and athlete to play cornerback for Belichick.