Here’s what we currently know, with certainty, about the New England Patriots’ cornerback depth chart: Stephon Gilmore is a starter.
Beyond knowing Gilmore is entrenched as a starter, there are far more questions than answers as it pertains to the Patriots’ cornerback corps.
In recent practices, we’ve seen Eric Rowe and Jason McCourty line up outside on the other side of Gilmore in the Patriots’ top-team defense. The Patriots also appear to be sorting through a litany of slot options, including Jonathan Jones, Cyrus Jones, Jomal Wiltz, Keion Crossen and Duke Dawson. Since the Patriots typically run a base nickel defense with three safeties and two cornerbacks on the field, that slot cornerback actually would be the Patriots’ dime defensive back.
They’re long shots to start, but rookie JC Jackson and Ryan Lewis also could make the roster as backup boundary options. Both players have had their moments in training camp practices, though Lewis is currently dealing with an undisclosed injury situation. They both also could be slot options.
We just ran through every cornerback on the Patriots’ roster. If no one steps up to take on a key role, you could make a case for each to make the roster.
So, where do the Patriots go from here? How do they whittle down the options, and who are their three best players?
It feels like it would be a slight disappointment if the Patriots go into 2018 with Gilmore, Rowe and Jonathan Jones as their starters, though it is their safest option. Rowe and Jones both toggled between being the Patriots’ No. 3 options behind Gilmore and Malcolm Butler in 2017. The Patriots forced Rowe into a slot role even though he’s best suited as an outside cornerback. Jones was the Patriots’ slot cornerback until Rowe came back from an injury at which time he was thrust into a backup role before getting hurt himself. Jones did play well in 2017 before being demoted and injured. The Patriots could have used him in Super Bowl LII.
A combination of Gilmore, McCourty and Dawson is probably ideal. McCourty played well last year, and if he fits into the Patriots’ defense, could be an upgrade over Rowe. But he also didn’t play in the Patriots’ first preseason game. That was odd.
Dawson was a second-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft who seemingly was hand-picked to be the Patriots’ next slot cornerback. He hasn’t stood out in practices, however, and he also seems to be dealing with an injury situation.
Cyrus Jones, 2016 second-round pick, is an intriguing option for the slot. He had a rocky start to his NFL career as a rookie then tore his ACL in 2017 but has been given a fresh start in 2018 and has a chance to make the roster as the team’s top punt returner while wide receiver Julian Edelman serves a four-game suspension. Playing slot was expected to be among Jones’ strengths out of college, but his issues as a punt returner have seemingly had a trickle-down effect on his coverage ability.
Can he start over fresh and nail down two important roles? He seems to be progressing well after last summer’s ACL tear.
Crossen, Jackson, Lewis and Wiltz are less likely to earn one of those top three spots, but they’re definitely in the running for roster spots.
Which leads us to our next question: How many Patriots cornerbacks make the 53-man roster?
The Patriots carry an average of 5.3 cornerbacks on their 53-man roster, according to the Boston Sports Journal. They’ll likely keep five, though they could roster six. It seems unlikely they would carry seven.
Gilmore, Rowe, Dawson and Jonathan Jones should be viewed as locks. Gilmore is a starter, Rowe is either a starter or ideal backup in multiple roles, Dawson is too early in his NFL career to give up on and Jones is a starting special-teams gunner and versatile defensive player.
So, that fifth, and possibly sixth, spot comes down to McCourty, Jackson, Cyrus Jones, Lewis, Crossen and Wiltz. McCourty, Jackson and Cyrus Jones are the most likely options, but this will be a difficult decision for Bill Belichick and his staff early next month.
Thumbnail photo via Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY Sports Images