As the NFL calendar officially flips to 2021, we’re taking a position-by-position look at the New England Patriots’ roster. We’ll examine which players stood out in 2020, which ones have some work to do this offseason and which ones could be leaving town.
Next up: the cornerbacks.
IMPENDING FREE AGENTS
J.C. Jackson (restricted)
Jackson ranked second in the NFL with nine interceptions (trailing only Miami Dolphins All-Pro Xavien Howard, who had 10) and posted the sixth-best passer rating against (62.7) of any qualified cornerback, according to Pro Football Focus. His ball skills are elite, but the 25-year-old also struggled at times while Gilmore was sidelined, raising questions over whether he can be a true lockdown No. 1 corner at this point in his career.
Speaking of Gilmore, the 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year missed five games due to injury and saw his interception and passes defended numbers plummet (from six and 20 to one and three, respectively). He remained the Patriots’ top cover man when healthy, though: After committing two penalties in Week 1 and having a tough time against D.K. Metcalf in Week 2, Gilmore allowed more than 30 receiving yards in just one of his final nine games and surrendered only one touchdown during that span, per PFF.
Jones, who’s developed into a valuable slot/safety hybrid, finished as PFF’s fifth-highest graded cornerback. Bryant, an undrafted rookie, showed promise in a “Swiss Army knife”-type role. Bethel continued to perform at an elite level on special teams, though his four offensive holding penalties equaled his total from the previous four seasons.
It was another quiet season for Williams, New England’s second-round draft pick (45th overall) in 2019.
The Patriots initially tried converting the 6-foot-3, 212-pounder into a matchup safety against tight ends — he covered Mike Gesicki on 27 snaps in Week 1 and was part of the committee that locked down Darren Waller in Week 3 — but abandoned that effort early in the season.
When New England faced George Kittle in late October, Williams didn’t play a single defensive snap. Against Mark Andrews three weeks later, same story.
All told, Williams appeared in 15 games but logged more than 10 defensive snaps in just five of them, including two late-season blowouts (at Chargers, vs. Bills) and the Week 17 finale. He played only on special teams in four games and sat out one as a healthy scratch.
Williams could see additional opportunities for playing time in Year 3, but so far, he has not lived up to his draft slot.
TOP OFFSEASON STORYLINES
Cornerback has been one of the Patriots’ strongest and deepest position groups over the last three seasons, but it faces some significant questions this offseason.
None of New England’s top three outside corners (Gilmore, Jackson and McCourty) are locks to be with the team in 2021. Here’s a brief overview of each player’s situation:
— The Patriots borrowed from the final year of Gilmore’s contract to give him a preseason raise, so he’s currently set to earn just $7 million in salary this season, plus a $343,750 roster bonus. It’s doubtful Gilmore will be willing to play for that value — which is well below market for a perennial Pro Bowler — meaning the Patriots likely will either need to extend his contract or trade him. New England reportedly discussed trading Gilmore on multiple occasions last year before opting to keep him. Gilmore turns 31 in September and is coming off a partially torn quad that ended his 2020 season in Week 15.
— Jackson, who trails only Howard in interceptions since he entered the NFL in 2018, will be a restricted free agent this spring. If he and the team do not come to terms on a long-term extension before the March 17 start of the league year, he’s likely to receive either a first- or second-round tender, which would allow the Patriots to recoup the corresponding draft pick if another team signs Jackson to an offer sheet and they decline to match. An RFA tender essentially is a one-year contract that would set Jackson up to hit unrestricted free agency in 2022. The Patriots also theoretically could trade Jackson this offseason.
— McCourty will be an unrestricted free agent. He turns 34 in August and has yet to confirm whether he plans to return for a 13th NFL season. Like Jones, McCourty played both cornerback and safety in 2020, bringing versatility and leadership to New England’s secondary.
The Patriots’ level of need at the position will depend on whether Gilmore and Jackson stay put, but it might be smart to begin planning for the future regardless. Though they have more pressing positional weaknesses, don’t rule out them using a high draft pick on a cornerback.