The New England Patriots lost two members of their cornerback group Tuesday, placing Malcolm Butler and Joejuan Williams on season-ending injured reserve.
Butler’s move to IR cuts short what would have been an inspiring and compelling comeback story. From a storyline perspective, it would have been great to see Butler, after a year of retirement and four years removed from his infamous Super Bowl LII benching, again making plays in New England’s secondary.
But frankly, neither transaction should have a major impact on the Patriots’ depth chart.
Williams entered his fourth Patriots training camp with long roster odds, and those took another hit when he allowed a touchdown and was flagged for a facemask in last week’s preseason opener.
Butler’s chances of sticking were stronger, but even he had been pushed toward the bubble. Two rocky weeks of practices saw him surrender big plays to a wide spectrum of Patriots wideouts, from veteran starters like DeVante Parker and Nelson Agholor to roster hopefuls like Tre Nixon and Josh Hammond.
At 32 years old, the Super Bowl XLIX hero clearly had lost a step. While he looked like a player who still could contribute this season, the chances of him landing a starting job looked slim entering this week.
Butler and Williams both sat out practice Monday and Tuesday after playing last Thursday against the New York Giants.
So, who will start at cornerback for the 2022 Patriots, who let Pro Bowler J.C. Jackson walk in free agency? While subject to change in the 3 1/2 weeks before Week 1, two clear favorites have emerged.
The first is Jalen Mills, who looks like a lock to start at one outside cornerback spot. No surprise there. Mills is a returning starter, played well last season and has enjoyed an excellent summer, looking like the No. 1 cover man in New England’s star-less collection of corners.
Mills was one of the best players on the field in Tuesday’s joint practice with the Carolina Panthers, breaking up two passes in 1-on-1 drills and two more in 11-on-11s, including one at the goal line.
“He wants to be able to take that next step and be the guy, and he carries himself like that,” safety Adrian Phillips said after practice. “He came in last year and he played well for us, and now, we move on from J.C. … and now it’s like, it’s Jalen. He’s stepping into the role, and he’s doing his thing. He’s out there confident, and he’s locked in every single day.”
Starting opposite Mills? Lately, that’s been Jonathan Jones — a mainstay in the Patriots’ defensive backfield but an unexpected choice for that role.
Jones’ primary role since joining New England in 2016 has been defending the slot. He’s played 1,400 more snaps there (1,799 total) than he has on the perimeter (399), according to Pro Football Focus.
The Patriots, though, evidently view Jones as their next-best option in that important position. And his move to the outside is progressing beyond the experiment phase. He and Mills have been the first-team outside corners in each of the last four practices, including Tuesday’s against Carolina. Both also sat out against the Giants along with most other Patriots starters.
Jones’ shorter stature (listed at 5-foot-10, 190 pounds) could prove problematic against taller, more physical receivers. That mismatch has shown up at times in camp, with the 6-foot-3 Parker besting Jones in multiple contested-catch situations.
Overall, though, Jones has looked solid on the outside. He allowed a long touchdown to top Panthers wideout D.J. Moore on Tuesday but later was in coverage on three consecutive incompletions during a Carolina two-minute drill.
Jones appears to be a tier above veteran newcomer Terrance Mitchell, whose chances of nabbing a roster spot increased following Butler’s injury, and feisty fourth-round draft pick Jack Jones, who has shown a penchant for pass breakups and should have a role as a rookie, though likely a reserve one to start.
Assuming Mills and Jones remain in their current spots, the focus now shifts to the battle for Jones’ previous post. Third-round rookie Marcus Jones and third-year pro Myles Bryant are the top contenders for that job, with each seeing reps with the first-team defense in practice.
Marcus Jones has been the more impactful playmaker — he got his hand on two Panthers passes Tuesday and won each of his 1-on-1 reps — and notably was held out of the preseason opener. But Bryant, who struggled to keep up with speedier slot receivers late last season, has repped above Jones in each of the last two practices and is well-regarded by teammates and coaches.
Both are vying to be New England’s top punt returner, as well, and also have seen action at safety. If Jones wins those competitions, the Patriots likely will be forced to cut at least one of Bryant, Mitchell or Shaun Wade, who’s making a dark-horse push for a roster spot.
Wade has been around the ball plenty of late. The 2021 fifth-rounder hardly played as a rookie but notched two breakups and an interception in Tuesday’s practice. The Patriots also have ace gunner Justin Bethel, who’s likely to stick for his special teams expertise.
The recently re-signed Devin Hafford rounds out the Patriots’ cornerback room. An undrafted rookie out of Tarleton State, he’s the only true long shot in this pared-down position group.
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