The New England Patriots used the third-to-last pick in the 2019 NFL Draft to select a player who, at the midway point of his college career, looked like an emerging defensive star.
Then, Sept. 5, 2016 happened.
During Ole Miss’ season opener against Florida State, cornerback Ken Webster landed awkwardly after leaping to force an incompletion, with his left knee bending outward at a gruesomely unnatural angle.
Webster, who’d started all 12 games in 2015, intercepting one pass and breaking up 11, tore all three ligaments in his knee, an injury that would sideline him for the remainder of his junior season. He received a medical redshirt and returned to play two more seasons for the Rebels but never fully regained his starting spot, coming off the bench in 12 of his final 20 collegiate games.
The 22-year-old continued to flash potential during his limited playing time, however, and his skill set makes him an intriguing addition to the Patriots’ secondary.
If you judge based on SPARQ score — a composite metric that distills all of a player’s pre-draft testing numbers into a single value — Webster was the most athletic cornerback in this year’s draft class, placing in the 99th percentile of NFL corners. He’s stout and aggressive in run defense, and his 4.43 speed helps mask some of his flaws in coverage.
A perfect example of the latter came during a game against Auburn — and fellow 2019 Patriots draft pick Jarrett Stidham — last season. Wide receiver Darius Slayton appeared to have beaten Webster deep on a vertical route, but as Stidham’s pass approached its target, Webster closed the gap, caught up to Slayton at the goal line and stuck his hand in to force an incompletion.
Webster’s physicality at the catch point is one of his greatest strengths. This also was evident on this pass breakup against Vanderbilt:
And this interception against Texas A&M, during which he hung on to the ball while smashing into a teammate at full speed:
In 160 coverage snaps last season, Webster allowed a passer rating against of 58.1, surrendering 15 catches on 27 targets for 186 yards and one touchdown, according to Pro Football Focus. He finished the year with two interceptions and six pass breakups.
There’s a reason Webster was limited to part-time duty over the last two years, though. Scouting reports indicated he hasn’t been the same in coverage since his injury, and we found a few examples of that on film, like the one below from last year’s LSU game.
A return route by a Tigers wideout near the goal line put Webster in a blender and likely would have resulted in an easy touchdown had quarterback Joe Burrow not thrown to — and connected with — another open receiver.
Against the run is where Webster really stood out in the games we studied for this film review. He’s not perfect in that area, either — his aggressiveness led to a missed tackle or two — but his physical strength is very impressive for a player at his position.
Not many cornerbacks can square up a fullback in the hole and stand their ground, as Webster did here against Texas A&M’s Cullen Gillaspia:
Webster, whose 18 bench press reps were tied for second-most among corners at the NFL Scouting Combine, closes on ball-carriers with authority. Watch him breeze past another fullback, Auburn’s Chandler Cox, to blow up a run out of the Wildcat:
This nose for the ball was apparent on screen passes, too. On the play before his aforementioned coverage slip-up, Webster navigated through a pack of bodies to drop an LSU receiver for no gain.
It’s too early to tell what Webster’s role in New England might be, and roster spots will be hard to come by in the Patriots’ jam-packed cornerback room. His speed and tackling ability should at least make him an asset on special teams, though, which is how Keion Crossen — another highly athletic seventh-round corner — earned a place on the team as a rookie last season.
Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio compared Webster to Crossen, who landed on the Patriots’ radar after testing extremely well at his pro day.
“I’d say similar to Crossen, just from a standpoint of outstanding testing numbers,” Caserio said. “I mean, really explosive, just in terms of his speed, his explosiveness. I mean, like, eye-popping numbers. Now, there’s an element that has to translate over to the field, but from a physical/athletic traits standpoint, there’s a lot of good qualities, and he played against some pretty good people on a weekly basis (in the SEC).”
It should be noted that, at 5-foot-11, 203 pounds, Webster is 2 inches taller and 25 pounds heavier than Crossen was when he joined the Patriots. In terms of defensive potential, he primarily was an outside corner at Ole Miss but also played some in the slot and at safety, so he could have some positional versatility.
Thumbnail photo via Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY Sports Images