Patriots Offseason Outlook: Assessing Pats’ Cornerbacks After Stellar 2018 Season

Before the NFL Scouting Combine kicks off later this month, marking the unofficial start of the NFL offseason, we’re taking a position-by-position look at the New England Patriots’ roster. We’ll examine which players stood out in 2018, which ones have some work to do this offseason and which ones could be leaving town.

Next up: the cornerbacks.

UNDER CONTRACT
Stephon Gilmore
J.C. Jackson
Keion Crossen
Duke Dawson

IMPENDING FREE AGENTS
Jason McCourty
Jonathan Jones (restricted)
Eric Rowe

STANDOUT PERFORMER
Gilmore went from a very good cornerback at the end of the 2017 season to one of the NFL’s absolute best in 2018, earning first-team All-Pro honors for the first time in his career. He played one of his best games as a Patriot in Super Bowl LIII, largely neutralizing Brandin Cooks while also forcing a fumble, breaking up three passes and hauling in a pivotal interception in a performance that rightly generated Super Bowl MVP buzz.

Jackson was the breakout star of the Patriots’ defense, transforming from a seldom-used undrafted rookie to a starting shutdown cover man by the start of December. The Maryland product posted the lowest passer rating against of any NFL cornerback, and though he took a backseat to McCourty in the Super Bowl after struggling in the AFC Championship, he should begin camp as New England’s other starting corner opposite Gilmore.

Speaking of McCourty, the veteran was inconsistent at times in his first season in New England, but he proved to be a valuable addition, starting 12 games and making one of the plays of the year when he denied Cooks of what appeared to be a sure touchdown in Super Bowl LIII.

Jones’ season trajectory was an inverse of Jackson’s: The third-year played sparingly on defense late in the regular season before reemerging to help lock down Tyreek Hill in the AFC title game and then switching positions to play nearly every defensive snap at safety in the Super Bowl.

Crossen, a 2018 seventh-round draft pick, played sparingly on defense as a rookie but emerged as a go-to guy in kick and punt coverage.

Overall, cornerback was one of the Patriots’ top position groups this season.

NEEDS IMPROVEMENT
The only real disappointment here was Dawson, who was not active for a single game after being drafted in the second round last spring.

The Florida product was expected to compete for playing time in the slot, but a hamstring injury sidelined him for most of the preseason and subsequently landed him on injured reserve before the season. Dawson returned to the active roster in Week 11 but sat out the Patriots’ final nine games as a healthy scratch.

It’s certainly a bit concerning that a player drafted 56th overall couldn’t crack the active roster even once as a rookie, but Dawson’s return to the fray did coincide with a stretch of near-perfect health for New England’s cornerbacks. As a second-round pick, he’ll be afforded every opportunity to earn a roster spot this summer.

TOP OFFSEASON STORYLINES
1. Will McCourty be back? He and his twin brother both are on retirement watch after comments Devin McCourty made during Super Bowl week, and even if Jason does return for an 11th NFL season, there’s no guarantee he’d remain in New England.

In his most recent public comments, Jason McCourty told Albert Breer of The MMQB he currently plans on continuing his career, though he had yet to make an official decision.

“For me, family’s the most important thing, so between me and my wife, it’s figuring it out,” McCourty told Breer last week. “But ideally, I’d say right now, yeah, I plan on playing football.”

2. Jones, who raised his profile considerably through his postseason performances, also will be a player to monitor as free agency’s March 14 kickoff date nears. He’s set to become a restricted free agent, meaning the Patriots can choose to place a first-, second- or original-round tender on him.

Because Jones went undrafted out of Auburn in 2016, New England would not receive draft pick compensation if they use the original-round tender (effectively a one-year contract worth $2 million) and he signs elsewhere. If they intend to keep him, a second-round tender ($3.1 million) might be the smarter play.

The Patriots also could avoid that process by signing Jones to a contract extension before free agency begins.

3. Can Dawson carve out a role after essentially redshirting as a rookie?

4. Who will be the next Jackson? This is more of a training camp storyline, but the Patriots’ ability to identify undrafted cornerbacks is truly remarkable. Since 2014, they’ve signed Malcolm Butler, Darryl Roberts, Jones, Kenny Moore, Cre’Von LeBlanc and Jackson, all of whom have gone on to start games either for the Patriots (in the case of Butler, Jones and Jackson) or elsewhere.

Patriots offseason preview: Quarterbacks | Running backs | Tight ends | Wide receivers | Offensive line | Defensive line | Linebackers | Safeties (Feb. 21) | Specialists (Feb. 22) 

Thumbnail photo via Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY Sports

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