These Could Be Patriots’ Available Cornerbacks Vs. Dolphins

'They ain't filling in. This is their opportunity'


Dec 29, 2022

FOXBORO, Mass. — Last week, after dropping into coverage on a career-high nine snaps against the Las Vegas Raiders, Matthew Judon joked that he should begin moonlighting as a defensive back.

The New England Patriots might need him to this Sunday.

Cornerbacks Jalen Mills (groin), Jack Jones (knee) and Marcus Jones (concussion) all have yet to practice this week, putting their availability for the Patriots’ must-win Week 17 matchup with the Miami Dolphins in serious jeopardy.

With safety Adrian Phillips also missing practice Thursday with an illness, the Patriots could be severely shorthanded in the secondary against the Dolphins’ explosive, Tyreek Hill- and Jaylen Waddle-led passing attack.

“I ain’t going to tell you what I’m going to be doing this week,” Judon, the Patriots’ Pro Bowl edge rusher and sacks leader, said Thursday. “But don’t be surprised if it’s me versus Waddle out there on an island.”

That was a joke. New England would not have a player like Judon man up on a wide receiver — especially not one with the blazing speed that both Waddle and Hill possess. But if Mills and the two rookie Joneses all cannot play Sunday, the Patriots would need to rely on some unfamiliar cover men against Miami’s vaunted receiving duo.

“Whoever we’ve got, that’s who you’ve got to use,” Judon said. “It would be great if we were at 100% and everybody was out there, but right now we aren’t, and you’ve got to play with what you have. I think the guys that are coming out there and practicing, playing, they’re going to do well.”

Usual starters Jonathan Jones and Myles Bryant should continue to be the top options at one outside cornerback spot and in the slot, respectively, but the favorite to start opposite Jones is Shaun Wade, who’s spent both of his NFL seasons buried at bottom of the Patriots’ depth chart.

The rangy Ohio State product has played just 18 defensive snaps this season and 29 in his NFL career. In last week’s loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, Wade allowed a touchdown on his one and only snap, stumbling as receiver Trenton Irwin beat him on an out route.

If all three injured corners can’t go, the Patriots also likely would elevate Quandre Mosely and/or Tae Hayes from the practice squad for Sunday’s game.

Mosely has an intriguing blend of size (listed at 6-foot-2, 185 pounds) and athleticism (4.4-second 40, 36-inch vertical jump at his pro day), but he’s never appeared in an NFL game and already is on his fourth team as an undrafted rookie. The 5-foot-9, 190-pound Hayes has played in 11 career games for four different franchises and just joined the Patriots on Tuesday.

And if they get truly desperate, the Patriots might need to turn to a depth safety like Joshuah Bledsoe or Brenden Schooler or even an offensive player to fill their cornerback void.

Judon, though, said he has confidence in New England’s backups.

“Shoot, they ain’t filling in,” he said. “This is an opportunity for them to get to start or get to play a lot. It ain’t no fill-in. It ain’t no ‘just because.’ They’re here for a reason. They’ve got a jersey for a reason. They’ve got a helmet for a reason. They were assigned a position. This is just how their life was supposed to play out, and this is their chance. This is their opportunity.

“You see it a lot — guys don’t get an opportunity, they don’t get a chance, and then once they do, they take off. That’s how their career ascends, and that’s how their career starts. So this is their opportunity. It ain’t no fill-in role.”

The situation sparks memories of last season’s divisional-round playoff loss in Buffalo. With Jonathan Jones on injured reserve and Jalen Mills on the reserve/COVID-19 list, the Patriots had to use players like Justin Bethel, D’Angelo Ross and De’Vante Bausby and give Joejuan Williams — a healthy scratch weeks earlier — 41 defensive snaps in a 47-17 loss to the Bills.

Fortunately for the Patriots, they won’t be facing Josh Allen this week, or even the Dolphins’ preferred starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who is out with a concussion. They’ll get journeyman Teddy Bridgewater, who is among the NFL’s better second-stringers but a second-stringer nonetheless.

Hill and Waddle can wreck a game regardless of who’s throwing them passes, however, and the Patriots need their patchwork cornerback crew to meet that challenge. A loss Sunday would officially eliminate them from playoff contention, while a win would keep them alive heading into next weekend’s regular-season finale in Buffalo.

“We’ve got guys that are going to step up and play in those positions, and they’re going to play well,” Judon said. “They’ve got to play well.”

Thumbnail photo via Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports Images
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