In the summer of 2016, an undrafted rookie cornerback named Cre’von LeBlanc made a strong push for a Patriots roster spot. He wound up losing out to another UDFA, Jonathan Jones, who went on to become a key member of New England’s secondary.
Five years later, LeBlanc is back, signing with the Patriots on Tuesday. He’s only on the practice squad, but thanks to a poorly timed positive COVID test, he could have a role in Saturday night’s wild-card round matchup with the Buffalo Bills.
The same day the Patriots added LeBlanc, they placed starting corner Jalen Mills on the reserve/COVID-19 list, potentially rendering him unavailable for this weekend’s playoff game. Mills still could return before the weekend if he clears NFL protocols. But if he doesn’t, New England would be forced to replace a player who started 16 games and played 86.4% of defensive snaps during the regular season.
The veteran LeBlanc could factor into that equation.
“I think it’s great for us to add a guy like LeBlanc,” longtime safety Devin McCourty said Wednesday. “We know at any moment, if we need him to play, he can play at a high level.”
LeBlanc has appeared in 52 games in his NFL career, plus three playoff games. Most of those came with the Chicago Bears, who claimed him off waivers from New England on cutdown day 2016, and the Philadelphia Eagles, with whom he played 2 1/2 seasons from 2018 through 2020. The 27-year-old hasn’t seen any game action this season, but he spent training camp in a Patriots-esque defense with the Miami Dolphins, which McCourty said will help ease his reintegration.
After being cut by Miami, LeBlanc spent the last several months with the Nick Caserio-led Houston Texans, who terminated his practice squad contract to allow him to sign with New England, per a report from Aaron Wilson of SportsTalk 790.
“He’s been in Miami, so it’s not like all of this stuff is foreign to him, some of the things we do,” McCourty said. “Obviously, it’s not all exactly the same, but some of the principles and things that we do, I’m sure there’s some crossover down there in Miami. So from him being in our system, then in Miami, then in Houston, he’s seen some familiar faces, and I’m sure there’s a little bit of crossover and he’ll be able to pick it up and, if we need him, go out there and perform at a high level.”
The Patriots have struggled throughout the Bill Belichick era to draft quality cornerbacks, but they’ve shown a rare knack for unearthing undrafted gems. Between 2014 and 2018, they signed Malcolm Butler, Jones, LeBlanc, Kenny Moore and J.C. Jackson, all of whom have gone to play in at least 50 NFL games. Butler, Moore and Jackson all made Pro Bowls, and Jones is one of the game’s better slot corners when healthy. Darryl Roberts, a 2015 seventh-round pick, also remains active in the league.
“Between LeBlanc, Kenny Moore down in Indy, Darryl Roberts, who’s playing for Washington, we had a couple years in a row where we just had guys come in either undrafted or late-round picks that just performed at a high level, J-Jones being one of them,” McCourty said. “And LeBlanc was the same way. It was like every time they got on the field, they were making a play, whether it was in practice, in the preseason games. And it was to the point where you’re like, ‘Man, there’s no way we’re going to be able to keep all these corners.’ But it’s no surprise to me that all these guys are still in the NFL, still making plays.”
Though LeBlanc could help replace Mills, he’s unlikely to take his spot in the starting lineup. That duty likely would fall to 2019 second-rounder Joejuan Williams, who was a healthy scratch for three of the Patriots’ final four regular-season games. Williams started in Week 5 when Mills sat out with a hamstring injury, but he was benched after struggling in a come-from-behind win over the Texans.
LeBlanc also has played mostly in the slot since his rookie season, though he does have experience outside, where New England’s need will be if Mills can’t go.
Assuming Jackson sticks in his usual starting spot and Myles Bryant slides back into his slot role following his removal from the COVID list Tuesday, here are New England’s other options at cornerback:
Shaun Wade: Fifth-round rookie who has played just 11 defensive snaps across three appearances this season, was a healthy scratch in Weeks 16 and 17 and currently is on the COVID list.
Justin Bethel: Standout punt gunner who rarely plays on defense (41 snaps this season, mostly in garbage time).
D’Angelo Ross (practice squad): Slot/safety hybrid who was elevated for each of the last three games and filled Bryant’s role in last week’s loss to Miami. Earned praise from coaches and teammates for his versatility.
De’Vante Bausby (practice squad): Has been on the P-squad since Oct. 27 with no elevations. Tall (6-foot-2, 190 pounds), well-traveled veteran who played in 10 games for Denver last season.
D.J. Daniel (practice squad): Undrafted rookie signed this week. Appeared in one game for Jacksonville this preseason before being released.
Regardless of who steps in for Mills — or if he’s able to return after not practicing all week — this will be a challenging matchup for New England. The Bills boast one of the NFL’s deepest receiving corps, and they utilize three or more wideouts more often than any team in the NFL, per Sharp Football Stats.
Safety Kyle Dugger also is dealing with a hand injury that kept him out of the Patriots’ regular-season finale.
“Guys just need to step up,” McCourty said. “Whoever ends up playing in some of (Mills’) roles or whatever, guys just got to go out there and execute and play good football. … We have guys on this roster that have played football for us, played football other places, so we’ll just have to see how it all works out leading into Saturday. But I think our group is excited for the opportunity, excited for some of these other guys to get an opportunity to play and to take advantage of it.”