As the NFL calendar officially flips to 2022, we’re taking a position-by-position look at the New England Patriots’ roster. We’ll examine which players stood out in 2021, which ones have some work to do this offseason and which ones could be leaving town. Next up: cornerbacks.
IMPENDING FREE AGENTS
2021 SEASON REVIEW
In their most controversial roster move of 2021, the Patriots opted to ship 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore to the Carolina Panthers in October, receiving only a 2023 sixth-round draft pick in return. This came after Gilmore began the season on the physically unable to perform list. After the trade, he said he did not appreciate how the Patriots handled his injury rehab.
Gilmore’s absence and subsequent departure elevated Jackson to No. 1 cornerback status, and he mostly flourished. Though he has yet to prove he can erase elite receivers on a weekly basis the way Gilmore could at his apex — Buffalo’s Stefon Diggs, in particular, continued to give him problems — the 2018 undrafted free agent firmly established himself as one of the NFL’s top cover men.
Jackson started every game for the Patriots and finished the season ranked first in the NFL in passes defended (23), second in interceptions (eight) and fourth in passer rating against (47.8) among corners with at least 100 coverage snaps, per Pro Football Focus. The 26-year-old was PFF’s seventh-highest-graded cornerback and earned Pro Bowl and second-team All-Pro honors for the first time in his career.
Mills stepped into the other starting spot opposite Jackson, and though he’s likely best suited for a multipositional hybrid role, the veteran DB fared well as an outside cornerback. After enduring some rough early-season outings, Mills was much better in the back half of the season. He allowed just 1.4 catches and 19 yards per game over the final nine contests, breaking up six passes and surrendering two touchdowns during that span.
The 27-year-old was a significant step down from a healthy Gilmore, and the Patriots played more zone coverage than usual to mask some of their man-to-man deficiencies. But he and Jackson were a solid starting tandem.
The real problems came lower on the depth chart. New England simply had no viable replacement for either player — a roster construction flaw that burned the team at the worst possible time. Mills missed for the Patriots’ wild-card playoff game after testing positive for COVID-19, and Josh Allen tore their secondary apart in a 47-17 rout.
Williams, a clear second-round draft bust at this point, was benched in that game. So was Bryant, who showed promise but lacked consistency after taking over an injured Jones’ slot duties in October. Wade also was unavailable following a positive COVID test, but he dressed for just three games all season, playing a total of 11 defensive snaps.
The Patriots have a big decision to make on Jackson in the coming weeks. But regardless of whether he stays or leaves, building out a more robust cornerback group needs to be an offseason priority.
TOP OFFSEASON STORYLINES
1. What happens with Jackson? He’s set to become an unrestricted free agent when the new league year opens March 16 and would be the best cornerback available if he does. He’s also made clear that he wants to get paid — unsurprising given the disparity between his top-end production and modest career earnings (about $5.1 million over four seasons).
Since Jackson would have little incentive to sign a new contract before free agency begins, the Patriots’ most likely course of action is to slap him with the franchise tag, which they have until March 8 to utilize. From there, they could negotiate a long-term extension; have Jackson play on the tag this season, costing the team roughly $17.3 million; or trade him.
That $17.3 million price tag is a lot to pay for a single season, especially since the Patriots currently have less than $10 million in available salary-cap space. But losing Jackson — the NFL’s leader in interceptions since he entered the league in 2018 — would leave a giant void in New England’s secondary, with no internal options to fill it.
Whichever path they choose, the financial ramifications of the Jackson decision will shape the rest of the Patriots’ roster-building process.
For what it’s worth, Jackson told NBC Sports Boston’s Phil Perry this week that he has not spoken with the Patriots about a new contract since the season ended (though New England often waits until after the NFL Scouting Combine to initiate those talks). He also said he would be willing to play on the franchise tag.
“Whatever happens, happens,” Jackson told Perry. “I’m taking it day by day. But it’s time for me to get paid. It’s time to get Mr. INT paid.”
2. How can the Patriots improve their corner depth? They’ll likely utilize both free agency and the 2022 NFL Draft to beef up this group, with their level of investment hinging on whether or not Jackson stays put. Notable impending free agents include Carlton Davis, Gilmore (who, based on his post-trade comments, probably won’t be itching to return), Darious Williams, Casey Heyward Jr., Steven Nelson and Charvarius Ward.
The Patriots haven’t drafted a quality cornerback since 2013 (Logan Ryan) and have a long history of early-round whiffs at the position, finding most of their talent through undrafted free agency (Jackson, Jones, Malcolm Butler, etc.). But with corner near the top of their list of draft needs, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them snag one on Day 1 or 2. Prospects who could pique their interest in that range include Cincinnati’s Sauce Gardner, Clemson’s Andrew Booth, Washington’s Trent McDuffie, Washington’s Kyler Gordon, Florida’s Kaiir Elam and Auburn’s Roger McCreary.
3. Is this the end for Williams? Like wide receiver N’Keal Harry, who was drafted 13 picks before him in 2019, Williams has been a dud at the NFL level.
Despite the Patriots’ lack of quality cornerback depth, the 24-year-old Vanderbilt product was a healthy scratch for five games this season, with a since-released practice squadder (D’Angelo Ross) playing over him in Weeks 16 and 17. Injuries and COVID-19 cases pushed Williams into the starting lineup for two games, and he was benched in both. With one year left on his rookie contract, he’ll enter training camp as a roster long shot, if he’s not gone before them.
Wade, a once-vaunted prospect who was drafted in the fifth round last year and then traded to the Patriots in August, might still have potential, but his extreme lack of playing time this season should temper any expectations.