Patriots Positional Preview: Three Biggest Questions Facing Cornerbacks

The Patriots' starters will be free agents after the season

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As the Patriots progress through Phase 3 of their offseason program, we’re taking a position-by-position look at New England’s new-look roster.

Next up: cornerbacks.

OFFSEASON CHANGES
The Patriots have done a fantastic job keeping their secondary together over the years, and only one minor swap was made at the cornerback position this offseason. The Patriots let Jason McCourty walk in free agency to the Miami Dolphins and signed former Philadelphia Eagle Jalen Mills.

Otherwise, the Patriots held onto restricted free agent J.C. Jackson and All-Pro Stephon Gilmore (for now), and retained slot cornerback Jonathan Jones, Joejuan Williams, 2020 undrafted free agent Myles Bryant, special-teamer Justin Bethel, Mike Jackson Sr., D’Angelo Ross and Dee Virgin.

Gilmore, Jackson and Jones make up one of the best starting cornerback units in the NFL.

It was surprising, since Jackson and Gilmore both are only signed through the 2021 season, that New England didn’t inject some youth into the room by drafting a cornerback. The only rookie defensive back on the roster is sixth-round pick Joshuah Bledsoe, who did play slot cornerback at Missouri. We’ll be including Bledsoe in our safety positional preview, however, since that’s his anticipated position in the pros.

THREE BIG QUESTIONS
1. Will Gilmore and Jackson still be on the roster by Week 1?
Trade rumors will probably stick with Gilmore and Jackson until the 2021 NFL trade deadline.

Gilmore injured his quad late last season and is only set to make a $7 million salary on the campaign after New England borrowed $5 million from his 2021 paycheck to give him a raise in 2020. There hasn’t been a subsequent adjustment to give Gilmore a similar raise this offseason, and his injury rehab further clouds matters. Gilmore hasn’t been participating in organized team activities, and it’s unclear if that’s because he’s simply taking time off, isn’t healthy or isn’t happy.

The Patriots gave Jackson a second-round tender as a restricted free agent this offseason. No team bit, and Jackson will make $3.384 million this season playing under the tender. New England now has three options: give Jackson a contract extension, let him play under the tender and hit free agency next offseason or trade him. The first option, extending him, would be best but only if it’s at a price head coach Bill Belichick can stomach.

The Patriots could be in trouble if Gilmore and Jackson both depart the team after this season.

2. Where will Mills play?
Mills’ playing snaps by position listing from last season, via PFF.com, is remarkable to look at in its versatility:

Strong safety: 329 snaps
Free safety: 236 snaps
Cornerback: 227 snaps
Slot: 182 snaps
Line of scrimmage: 39 snaps

He played everywhere in 2020 with the Eagles and probably will again for New England this season. So, it’s really worth including him in cornerback and safety previews. The Patriots’ best course of action would be to use Mills as a form of weather seal: stick him in to fill any gaps where needed. If a cornerback goes down: throw in Mills. If a safety gets injured: move him to safety. And if everyone is healthy, Mills will likely just play all over the field similar to the way Jason McCourty was utilized in 2020.

3. Will Williams take the next step?
The Patriots traded up for the Vanderbilt defensive back in the 2019 NFL Draft, and he’s played just 257 snaps over two seasons. After primarily playing cornerback as a rookie, Williams split his time between cornerback, safety and the slot in 2020. He’s currently set to enter the 2021 season behind Gilmore, Jackson, Jones, Mills and safeties Devin McCourty, Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips on the depth chart, leaving himself fighting for snaps with Bryant, Bledsoe, safety Adrian Colbert and others.

If Williams can prove himself as a cornerback, perhaps the Patriots could live without Gilmore or Jackson this season or in the future. But Williams has not shown he consistently deserves snaps up to this point.

MOST TO PROVE
Williams. In an ideal world, he’d play behind the Patriots’ starting cornerbacks and cover tight ends and bigger wide receivers. But Dugger might be better suited to face off against tight ends, and it’s not worth taking Gilmore, Jackson or Jones off the field to insert Williams against a big wideout. So, he could be stuck at the bottom of the depth chart unless there’s movement at the top.

SLEEPER TO WATCH
Mike Jackson Sr. The 2019 fifth-round pick has elite size for the position at 6-foot-1, 210 pounds. He’s bounced around since being drafted by Dallas. Jackson was signed off the Cowboys’ practice squad by the Detroit Lions during the 2019 season and was dealt to the Patriots last summer. He was waived by New England at roster cuts then signed to the practice squad after recovering from an injury early last season. Jackson played four defensive snaps in the Patriots’ season finale win over the New York Jets.

The Patriots could use some young cornerback depth, and Jackson is a player worth watching this summer.

More Patriots positional previews: tight ends, quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, offensive line, defensive line, linebackers

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