FOXBORO - As the start of training camp becomes more visible on the horizon for the NFL’s 32 teams, every organization’s brain trust is hard at work examining their respective rosters for strengths and weaknesses.
With a re-imagined offensive coaching staff, some key veteran additions via free agency and a rookie class which features a controversial first round draft choice, the New England Patriots will certainly serve their share of storylines heading into 2022.
Entering camp, where does the Pats' roster rank?
In the wake of both the draft and free agency, both ESPN and Pro Football Focus (PFF) have evaluated each team's roster using the PFF database, with an eye toward the projected starters.
Much to the chagrin of the fanbase, the Patriots are considered slightly below the league’s middle-of-the pack, finishing 18th in pre-camp rankings.
In addition to assigning PFF grades to each of the Patriots’ projected starters, the rankings also identified the team’s greatest strength, its most glaring weakness and New England’s ‘X-factor.’
While the Patriots' strength lies at safety with experienced playmakers in Devin McCourty, Adrian Phillips and emerging star Kyle Dugger, their weakness is only one level removed.
Biggest Weakness: Cornerbacks
ESPN / PFF Analysis:
The Patriots' starting outside cornerbacks are Jalen Mills and either Terrance Mitchell or the recently unretired Malcolm Butler, as things stand right now. That talent doesn't line up with what New England has done on defense in recent years, including last season, when it ranked second in Cover 1 rate. It doesn't require much imagination to see that cornerback group getting exposed in a man-heavy scheme. That could force the Patriots into more zone coverage in 2022.
Following the departure of second-team All-Pro cornerback J.C. Jackson [who signed a multi-year mega deal with the Los Angeles Chargers], New England’s cornerback position was in need of some assistance. As a result, the team agreed to deals with cornerbacks Terrance Mitchell and Malcolm Butler, and selected cornerbacks Marcus Jones and Jack Jones in the 2022 NFL Draft. These corners will join incumbents Jalen Mills, Jonathan Jones, Myles Bryant, Joejuan Williams, Shaun Wade and Justin Bethel on the depth chart. While the pair of rookie Joneses project as two of the Pats prominent players at the position for many years to come, the potential success of New England’s cornerbacks may rest on Butler’s shoulders for 2022.
In 2020 [his final season in Tennessee], Butler registered 111 tackles, four (interceptions) and 14 passes defensed. He was among the league’s best cover corners, earning a 75.8 coverage grade from Pro Football Focus, with a 79.8 coverage grade in zone coverage. As the above analysis from ESPN and PFF indicates, Butler’s signing seems to indicate that the Patriots will look to utilize more zone coverage in 2022.
This strategy may be the team’s best option for defending some of the speedy receivers residing in their own division. Still, he projects as one of the team’s primary perimeter corners heading into the upcoming season.