Despite having improved at several key positions in the offseason, the fate of the New England Patriots' defense may continue to rest within their group of cornerbacks. Whether it be on the outside, or in the slot, the Pats pride themselves on fielding a corps of corners that is capable of playing intelligent, preventative football, while blending the ability to aggressively make plays.
Traditionally, the Pats have employed a sound secondary. However, in 2021, the team’s depth at cornerback might be tested in ways which it has not been in quite some time.
Happy, Healthy Gilmore?
For starters, star cornerback Stephon Gilmore was unable to participate in training camp or preseason activities. The 2019 Defensive player of the year is still recovering from offseason surgery to repair a torn quad. Gilmore is currently on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list and is expected to rejoin the team when healthy. However, Gilmore has also been the subject of much speculation when it comes to his contract. Set to make just over $7 million in salary in 2021, the 30-year-old is reportedly seeking a contract extension from New England. This has led to some conjecture within the fan base that Gilmore’s absence is more related to finances than fitness.
Despite the apparent impasse, Gilmore and the Patriots remain in regular contact. While unable to practice, he was a fixture at the team’s facility during camp, providing valuable insight to his teammates. As head coach Bill Belichick stated on Tuesday during his appearance on WEEI’s The Greg Hill Show, the two sides appear to have an understanding on the situation.
"Steph and I have talked about that; we've talked about that with our strength coaches and trainers and Steph,” Belichick said. “I think we're all on the same page here."
Ultimately, it is in the best interest of both parties to come to an agreement. When healthy, Gilmore is still one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL and the Patriots defense is much more effective with him in the lineup.a harbinger of ominous things to come regarding Gilmore’s future in New England.
Next Man Up?
With Gilmore sidelined for at least the first six weeks of the 2021 season, the Pats will turn to J.C. Jackson as their primary option. Having signed his second-round tender, Jackson will remain in New England for the 2021 season. The former undrafted free agent has become quite the physical presence on the outside. Whether deployed in man coverage or zone concepts, Jackson has developed an impressive instinct for finding the football, earning nine interceptions in 2020. Still, the 25-year-old struggled a bit as the number one option, while Gilmore was out of the lineup. While Jackson has performed well during the 2021 preseason, his progress will be closely tracked from the outset of the regular season.
Though Jackson is a solid choice to fill the number one role, the Patriots options on the opposite side of the defense are still being determined.
Former Eagle Jalen Mills truly is a prototypical Patriots defensive back. The ‘Green Goblin’ showed tremendous versatility during his time in Philadelphia, and this has continued into his preseason in New England. Mills has evolved from a traditional outside cornerback to a defensive back capable of aligning in each spot within the secondary. In 2020, he regularly moved between box and free safety as well as perimeter and slot cornerback. Had Gilmore been ready to start the season, Mills was a primary candidate to align as the Patriots’ third perimeter cornerback, while also lining up in the slot and at either safety spot; similar to the role vacated by Jason McCourty. However, until the Pats star corner returns, Mills may end up being an enticing option as the team’s starting second cornerback.
Despite being only two years removed from being selected by the Patriots in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft, Williams was not a lock to make the roster. He possesses plenty of potential value due to his size and athleticism. Ideally, he is most effective when used as a rotational perimeter and slot cornerback against taller pass catchers. During training camp in 2020, he was being used in more of a specialized role; defending tight ends and big receivers. In fact, he actually looked better against tight ends than he did while guarding receivers. However, in 2021, Williams seemed to have returned to more of a traditional corner role, while maintaining his physicality. Though he has been beaten on some one-on-one routes by receivers during camp, he has provided adequate coverage in team drills. Still, he has yet to emerge as a match with New England’s press coverage schemes. Williams will likely be well-tested early in the season, in order for the Pats to determine whether Williams could grow into a starting role in their secondary.
At 6-foot-1, 190-pounds, Wade has adequate size to play either the slot or outside corner for New England. As the Patriots had been lacking depth at the position throughout camp, Wade’s acquisition should help add some strength and physicality to their defensive backfield. At his best, Wade is aggressive at the catch point, while showing an ability to read his opponent. Though he did struggle a bit with covering quick receivers during his final season at Ohio State, some of the blame should be placed on having turf toe. Thus far, Wade has shown no signs of being hampered by that injury. In fact, he snagged an interception in Baltimore’s first preseason game. Wade is still being groomed on the Patriots playbook. As such, it is unlikely that he would see significant playing time within the first few weeks of the season. However, he possesses the promise and potential to be a productive player in New England’s defense in 2021.