Before the NFL Scouting Combine kicks off later this month in Indianapolis, we’re taking a position-by-position look at the New England Patriots’ roster. We’ll examine which players stood out in 2019, which ones have some work to do this offseason and which ones could be leaving town.
Next up: the cornerbacks.
IMPENDING FREE AGENTS
No Patriot had a better 2019 season than Gilmore, who became the first cornerback since 2009 to win NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year Award. He also earned Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro honors for the second consecutive season after leading the NFL in passes defended (20) and finishing tied for first in interceptions (six) while frequently covering the opponent’s No. 1 receiving threat.
Jackson was excellent, as well, firmly establishing himself as one of the league’s top young corners. The second-year pro intercepted five passes, broke up five more and posted the lowest passer rating against (37.0) of any NFL cornerback. After a two-pick performance in Week 15, Gilmore said Jackson “has the best ball skills I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a lot of corners.”
Bethel hardly played on defense but is one of the NFL’s premier kick/punt coverage players. The three-time Pro Bowler teamed up with Matthew Slater to wreak havoc as a punt gunner after signing with the Patriots in late October.
There weren’t any glaring weak links in this unit. Jones, the Patriots’ top slot corner, struggled down the stretch after an excellent start, allowing four touchdowns in a five-game span in November and December. He remains a valuable member of New England’s secondary, though, and has showcased his versatility by shifting to safety at times.
Williams played just a handful of defensive snaps this season (7.9 percent) after being drafted in the second round, but that had more to do with the depth above him than any poor performance on his end. The Vanderbilt product fared well when called upon, allowing three catches on six targets for 32 yards with no touchdowns and one pass breakup, per Pro Football Focus.
TOP OFFSEASON STORYLINES
1. Will Jason McCourty be back? The 32-year-old has a team option in his contract for 2020, meaning the Patriots can decide whether they want to keep him around for another season or cut him loose.
McCourty started New England’s first 10 games in 2019 and played well, but a groin injury derailed his season. He played just nine total snaps over the Patriots’ final seven contests, then underwent offseason surgery. Patriots safety Devin McCourty, Jason’s twin brother, is set to hit unrestricted free agency next month.
“In an ideal world, I think we would love to continue to play together,” Jason McCourty told NESN.com during Super Bowl LIV week in Miami. “That may not be determined by us. I have a team option, so if the team picks up my option and Dev goes and plays somewhere else, then it won’t be. But I think for us, if we could choose, we’d definitely finish out our career playing alongside each other.”
Jason McCourty has played alongside his brother for the last two seasons after spending the first nine years of his career on non-playoff teams in Tennessee and Cleveland. He’s set to carry a salary cap hit of $5.75 million this season.
Declining to exercise McCourty’s option would free up $3.75 million in cap space, per Over The Cap. The Patriots must make that decision before the new league year begins March 18.
2. Can a non-starter emerge this offseason? That means Williams, Ross or Pipkins, the latter of whom signed with New England this week following stints with the Green Bay Packers, Indianapolis Colts, Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns.
Williams showed obvious talent during the 2019 preseason, and his rare size (6-foot-3, 212 pounds) could afford him additional opportunities in Bill Belichick’s defense. The Patriots tried him out at safety during their preseason finale.
Ross was an unexpected summer standout, as well, turning heads in training camp before landing on season-ending injured reserve in mid-August. The New Mexico product has a chance to become the latest in a long line of Patriots undrafted cornerback success stories — a list that includes Jackson, Jones, Malcolm Butler, Cre’von LeBlanc and Kenny Moore.
The Patriots also are likely to add more bodies to this position group through veteran free agency, the draft or post-draft signings.
3. Will Williams be punished for his off-the-field incident? The 22-year-old was arrested last month in his native Tennessee on drug-related charges after police allegedly found prescription pills, “a large amount of marijuana” and drug paraphernalia in his Land Rover during a traffic stop. Williams is due in court on Feb. 21. If found guilty, he could face supplemental discipline under the NFL’s substance-abuse policy.
Thumbnail photo via Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports Images