After being on easy street for two weeks of organized team activities, the New England Patriots faced a formidable challenge last week in mandatory minicamp. Quarterback Tom Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski entered the equation.
Brady didn’t simply tear through the Patriots’ defense in the non-padded practices, however. The Patriots’ defense put up a fight, especially Wednesday.
Here are the Patriots’ defensive winners and losers in minicamp.
J.C. Jackson, cornerback
The Patriots clearly liked what they saw from Jackson, an undrafted free agent out of Maryland, during rookie minicamp and OTAs because he ran with the first-team defense, opposite Stephon Gilmore, for most of minicamp.
There’s a caveat, however. Fellow cornerbacks Jason McCourty, Jonathan Jones, Cyrus Jones and Keion Crossen were sitting out of minicamp drills. It’s possible any of those players could have been taking those reps from Jackson.
But just the fact that Jackson was on the field, playing with the first-team defense and impressing in the role is enough to make him a winner. There was a particularly impressive three-play stretch Thursday when Jackson was targeted in coverage on consecutive plays by backup quarterback Brian Hoyer. Jackson forced incompletions on the first two throws to wide receivers Chris Hogan and Cordarrelle Patterson with tight coverage and broke up the third pass to Rex Burkhead.
Damarius Travis, safety
As of today, if there’s a safety on the roster who could beat out Jordan Richards for a spot, it would be Travis. Fellow first-year safety David Jones has missed spring practices, while Travis has stood out at times. He intercepted a pass in OTAs and broke up a pass from rookie quarterback Danny Etling on Thursday.
Travis spent the entire 2017 season on the practice squad. The Patriots, who have just eight safeties on the roster, clearly saw something in the undrafted free agent out of Minnesota to keep him on the team all year. Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon, Patrick Chung and Nate Ebner should be considered locks while Travis is competing with Richards, Jones and A.J. Moore for a fifth spot on the roster.
Duke Dawson, cornerback
Dawson, like Jackson, was seeing first-team reps all week. Dawson was featured as the team’s top slot cornerback with Jonathan and Cyrus Jones working on a side field.
Dawson was a second-round pick out of Florida, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him enter the 2018 season as the Patriots’ top slot cornerback.
Stephon Gilmore, cornerback
Gilmore opened the 2017 season with a tough four-game stretch. After those early-season struggles, however, Gilmore arguably was the Patriots’ best defender. He carried over his momentum from the 2017 season into this spring, when once again he was looking like the Patriots’ top defensive player.
Keion Crossen, cornerback
Crossen shined in the Patriots’ first open OTA but then was limited for the last four practices in front of reporters. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Jackson ahead of him on the depth chart to start training camp.
Eric Rowe, cornerback
It was pretty surprising to see Jackson seemingly over Rowe on the minicamp depth chart. Perhaps that’s just because the Patriots know what they have in Rowe, and they wanted to see what Jackson could contribute.
Both Kenny Britt and Jordan Mattews beat Rowe deep in spring practices.
Jason McCourty, cornerback
McCourty didn’t seem to participate in a single drill during minicamp, but he didn’t go down to a side field to work on conditioning with injured Patriots players. It’s unclear what’s going on with McCourty, but it would have been nice to see what he could do in minicamp against Brady.