This Is Patriots’ Most Intriguing Roster Battle After Spring Practices

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Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, cornerback Jason McCourty

Photo via Stew Milne/USA TODAY Sports Images

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick decided Tuesday his team proved enough through 10 practice sessions and called it a spring.

The Patriots were supposed to hold two final organized team activities sessions Thursday and Friday, but Belichick sent them on their way early for summer vacation. The Patriots now will reconvene for training camp in late July. And when they do practice again, one roster battle stands out above the rest: cornerback.

Prior to OTAs and minicamp, Stephon Gilmore, Jason McCourty, Duke Dawson, Jonathan Jones and Eric Rowe all were presumed to be roster locks. And if another player cracked the Patriots’ 53-man roster, New England would be forced to carry six cornerbacks.

Throw that thinking out the window. Only Gilmore, one of the Patriots’ best defenders, and Dawson, a second-round pick, are stone-cold locks, barring injury.

McCourty and Jones didn’t participate in any competitive drills open to the media, while Rowe struggled and wasn’t a consistent presence in the starting defense.

Instead, undrafted rookie J.C. Jackson spent most of the time across from Gilmore in the first-team defensive unit. It seems wise to pencil him onto the 53-man roster at this juncture.

But he’s not the only under-the-radar cornerback with a shot to crack the active roster. Seventh-round pick Keion Crossen was the star of the Patriots’ first open OTAs session then was limited moving forward with an undisclosed injury. Cyrus Jones is a 2016 second-round pick who missed the 2017 season with a torn ACL. With Julian Edelman facing a four-game suspension, the Patriots might need Jones’ punt return experience. Jones was limited throughout the spring.

Ryan Lewis also saw time in the first-team defense. The Patriots clearly liked Lewis last season when he was on the team’s practice squad. Jomal Wiltz also spent 2017 on the practice squad and saw some time on the first-team defense. He was overshadowed by other players, but he didn’t look out of place.

So, how will this all shake out? The Patriots typically carry five cornerbacks, but they have been willing to spend six roster spots on the position if the situation calls for it. If Jackson and one other young cornerback makes the roster, then one of those five players we previously considered locks could be on the way out.

McCourty is still the most likely starter opposite Gilmore this season. Jones could begin the season on the PUP list after suffering a lower leg injury late in the 2017 season. Gilmore and Dawson are going nowhere.

So, is Rowe still a sure thing to make the 2018 53-man roster? It’s clearly too early to say for sure, but it was a bit concerning to see a player like Jackson start over him during camp. Rowe has been on the field a lot while healthy over the last two seasons, but his play has been inconsistent. He let up big plays early in Super Bowl LII, which he started over Malcolm Butler. Perhaps the Patriots simply think they know what they have in Rowe, for better or for worse, and want to give other players the opportunity to see time in the starting defense.

Rowe doesn’t have exceptionally high upside two seasons into his Patriots career, and he has had trouble staying healthy, dealing with groin, ankle and hamstring injuries.

There’s still a solid shot Rowe starts across from Gilmore in 2018, but Jackson, Crossen and other young cornerbacks already are pushing him for a roster spot.

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