Patriots Are Using Unusually Loaded Cornerback Depth To Their Advantage

The Patriots could supplement their safety depth by moving versatile cornerbacks

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FOXBORO, Mass. — The New England Patriots’ secondary, while loaded, is also unbalanced.

The Patriots have the NFL’s best cornerback in defensive player of the year Stephon Gilmore and perhaps the league’s most underrated, as well, in JC Jackson. Wily veteran Jason McCourty, slot extraordinaire Jonathan Jones and special teams maven/useful defensive player Justin Bethel fill out the Patriots’ projected cornerback depth chart.

The safety picture is a different story. The Patriots lost Patrick Chung (to opt-out) and Duron Harmon (to an ill-timed trade) this offseason, leaving Devin McCourty as the only safety on the roster with extensive experience in New England’s defense. The Patriots eventually will need to decide which players will replace Chung at strong safety and Harmon as a nickel option at free safety, and their top candidates are Terrence Brooks, who was with the Patriots last season, 2020 second-round pick Kyle Dugger and veteran additions Adrian Phillips and Cody Davis.

Brooks has been solid in camp this offseason, but he’s only ever played sparingly on defense in his six-year career. Dugger is finally back to full participation in practice after dealing an an injury this summer. Phillips is still limited, while Davis seems destined for a special-teams and backup defensive role.

That’s all led the Patriots to think outside the box and dip into their deep reserve at cornerback. Joejuan Williams, Mike Jackson, D’Angelo Ross and Myles Bryant have proven worthy of roster consideration at the position, but they’re buried on the cornerback depth chart.

NFL Media’s Mike Giardi reported Williams, a 2019 second-round pick, has been meeting exclusively with safeties this summer. Ross acknowledged Sunday afternoon that he too has seen reps at safety.

“This is probably is my first time being back there, but I mean, a common thing with our team is the more you can do,” Ross said. “So, I’m willing to learn. Wherever they need me, that’s what I’m going to do. We got great coaches, we got great leadership in the secondary, so I’m able to look at those guys every day and just try to do my best. Whatever the team needs, I’m trying to do my best at that.”

Versatility is Ross’ best path to a roster spot, since he’s likely not beating out Gilmore, JC Jackson, Jason McCourty, Jones, Bethel or Williams for a spot exclusively at cornerback.

Ross was a training camp standout last summer before landing on injured reserve. He’s also flashed this summer while primarily playing in the slot.

Jones, who played safety in Super Bowl LIII against the Los Angeles Rams, is also a candidate to move around the defense.

“I think the biggest thing is when guys get here, Bill always harps on learning the concept, not just learning your position,” Jones said. “So a cornerback knows what the safety’s doing and vice versa. Some safeties know what the linebackers are doing, so I just think it makes it a little bit more fluid when you’re asked to do different things within the system; from week to week, year to year, you never know what coach is going to ask you to do. So, having that understanding of the system in its entirety really helps.”

That’s why linebackers also can shift seamlessly between the middle of the defense and the edge.

One issue with the players competing to replace Chung and Harmon at safety is their inexperience in the defense since communication is such an important aspect of the position.

“I would say our defense is extremely safety-driven, to an aspect of making a lot of calls and checks,” Jones said. “As far as a cornerback, (you’re) on the receiving end of the communication. That’s definitely one aspect that’s different.”

It will be fascinating to see how the Patriots handle their safety position from roster cuts to defensive deployment. Only Devin McCourty and Dugger are stone-cold roster locks, leaving Brooks, Phillips, Davis and seemingly Williams, Ross and some of the other cornerbacks, to compete for two or three more spots on the 53-man roster. Chung did everything from playing strong safety to linebacker and slot cornerback while Harmon mostly assisted Devin McCourty at free safety. That’s four important roles to fill in the Patriots’ defense with little clarity and less than two weeks before the Patriots take on the Miami Dolphins in Week 1 of the 2020 NFL season.

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