Examining Patriots’ Ever-Changing Cornerback Rotation Behind Malcolm Butler


Nov 22, 2016

Malcolm Butler has been the New England Patriots’ clear, unquestioned No. 1 cornerback since well before the team arrived in Foxboro for training camp four months ago.

That’s about the only certainty they’ve had at the position this season.

Butler continues to play at a Pro Bowl level and rarely leaves the field — his 605 defensive snaps are second on the team behind safety Devin McCourty’s 616 — but the Patriots have yet to find a reliable No. 2 corner. Logan Ryan, Eric Rowe and Justin Coleman all have auditioned for the role, but as Bill Belichick continues to shuffle his rotation 11 weeks into the season, it’s evident no clear favorite has emerged.

With the Patriots trying out yet another combination in Sunday’s 30-17 win over the San Francisco 49ers, here’s a look at how they’ve constructed their cornerback depth chart behind Butler in each game this season, with the starting No. 2 corner in italics:

Week 1 at Arizona Cardinals
Ryan: 61 snaps*
Coleman: 40 snaps
Cyrus Jones: five snaps
Rowe: Inactive

Rowe, acquired from the Philadelphia Eagles just days before the season opener, wouldn’t make his Patriots debut for another few weeks.

Week 2 vs. Miami Dolphins
Coleman: 58 snaps
Ryan: 56 snaps
Cyrus Jones: eight snaps
Rowe: Inactive

Ryan Tannehill picked apart the Patriots’ secondary during the Dolphins’ furious second-half comeback. He completed 16 of 23 passes for 240 yards and one touchdown when targeting Butler, Ryan or Coleman. It was the only time so far this season that Coleman played more snaps than Ryan did.

Week 3 vs. Houston Texans
Ryan: 71 snaps*
Cyrus Jones: 33 snaps
Coleman: zero snaps
Rowe: Inactive

Perhaps the unit’s best outing of the season came against Houston, as Butler and Ryan led the charge in neutralizing DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller. Coleman played only on special teams in New England’s 27-0 victory, while Jones, the Patriots’ top pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, logged his highest snap total to date.

Week 4 vs. Buffalo Bills
Ryan: 70 snaps
Coleman: 31 snaps
Cyrus Jones: nine snaps
Rowe: Inactive

Coleman and Jones returned to their previous roles as the Bills shut out the Patriots at home.

Week 5 at Cleveland Browns
Ryan: 63 snaps*
Jonathan Jones: 31 snaps
Cyrus Jones: 18 snaps
Coleman: Inactive
Rowe: Inactive

Week 5 was when things really began to get strange for this unit. Coleman surprisingly was inactive, and Cyrus Jones played easily his worst game as a pro, allowing a touchdown in the first quarter and getting himself ejected for throwing a punch at Browns receiver Andrew Hawkins. Jonathan Jones, who typically plays only on special teams, was forced to fill in for his fellow rookie. Every one of Jonathan Jones’ 31 defensive snaps this season came in this game.

Week 6 vs. Cincinnati Bengals
Ryan: 66 snaps
Rowe: 26 snaps
Cyrus Jones: Inactive
Coleman: Inactive

The Patriots rolled with just three cornerbacks as Coleman sat out for a second consecutive week and Cyrus Jones began his streak of three straight DNPs. Rowe put forth a strong performance in his New England debut, locking down A.J. Green after switching onto the Pro Bowl wide receiver in the second half.

Week 7 at Pittsburgh Steelers
Rowe: 73 snaps*
Ryan: 31 snaps
Coleman: 17 snaps
Cyrus Jones: Inactive

Ryan, a starter for the first six weeks of the season, saw his playing time drop drastically in Week 7. Rowe started against the Steelers and did not leave the field. Ryan began the game as the third cornerback but was replaced by Coleman after allowing consecutive third-down completions, both of which resulted in first downs.

Week 8 at Buffalo Bills
Ryan: 51 snaps
Rowe: 46 snaps
Coleman: 33 snaps
Cyrus Jones: Inactive

Rowe regressed in his second start, committing three penalties before being benched in favor of Ryan. Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor was just 2-for-6 for 27 yards when targeting either Ryan or Coleman, though the latter did pick up one defensive pass interference flag.

Week 10 vs. Seattle Seahawks
Ryan: 68 snaps
Coleman: 44 snaps
Cyrus Jones: zero snaps
Rowe: Inactive

Ryan, Coleman and Butler all struggled against Seattle’s Russell Wilson-led offense while Rowe watched from afar as a healthy scratch. Jones was reactivated but used only as a return man.

Week 11 at San Francisco 49ers
Rowe: 62 snaps
Ryan: 41 snaps
Cyrus Jones: one snap
Coleman: Inactive

Rowe returned to the starting lineup Sunday and played well, and Ryan, the slot corner for this game, had his best game of the season. Ryan completely smothered the 49ers’ top receiver, Jeremy Kerley, allowing zero catches on five targets and tallying two pass breakups. Jones was limited to a single defensive snap — his first since Week 5 — and Coleman was the odd man out.

* = played 100 percent of defensive snaps

Thumbnail photo via Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports Images

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