Despite having improved at several key positions in the offseason, the strength of the New England Patriots may continue to be 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.
Any discussion surrounding Patriots cornerbacks cannot begin without mentioning Stephon Gilmore. The 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year is still among the very best at the position in the NFL. Having played in only 11 out of 16 games last season, Gilmore still finished 2020 with one interception, one forced fumble, 37 total tackles (24 against the pass and 13 against the run) and one tackle for loss. While those totals were markedly lower than that which he posted during previous season, Gilmore’s value and on-field prowess was noticeably missed in his absence.
In 2021, the 30-year-old is set to make just over $7 million in salary, ranking him as the 26th highest-paid cornerback in football. As such, Gilmore is understandably seeking a contract extension, or at least a bump in salary. After declining to partake in the voluntary portion of the team’s offseason workout program, the Pats star corner also remained absent from mandatory minicamp, reportedly as a result of an issue with his contract.
While it seems like the clear decision for the Pats to acquiesce to Gilmore’s request, there are still some minor hurdles to clear for a deal to be done. First, there is the matter of Gilmore’s health. In Week 15 of the 2020 season, Gilmore suffered a partially torn quad, subsequently ending his season. Though he successfully underwent surgery to repair the injury, it is possible that the Pats might want to observe Gilmore on the field to ensure his healing before extending his contract.
Despite an agreement having yet to be reached, there is optimism that both sides will eventually find common ground. Gilmore has expressed a desire to return to New England and the Patriots clearly value his services. With training camp soon to open, the process to bring Stephon Gilmore back to the Foxboro Fold should accelerate.
Still, Gilmore will not be the only cornerback to watch during training camp. J.C. Jackson, Jonathan Jones and newly-acquired Jalen Mills should be considered roster locks. Those rounding out the depth chart, including Dee Virgin, D’Angelo Ross and Michael Jackson, Sr. could be practice squad options, should they fail to make the 53-man roster. Joejuan Williams is a former second-round pick with a lot of upside. However, he may find himself being edged out in a close positional battle by Myles Bryant, whose versatility allows him to see action at slot corner, perimeter corner, free safety and strong safety.
Though many of the aforementioned players are expected to garner some attention during this season’s training camp, here are three players that might raise an eyebrow… or perhaps, catch a ‘sharp eye’ among the Patriots’ cornerbacks in 2021.
Since joining the Patriots in 2016, Jones has emerged as New England’s top slot cornerback. As he prepares to enter his sixth season with the team, the 27-year-old will likely see action in the majority of the Patriots’ defensive snaps. Jones has proven to be effective in both nickel and dime packages and can adjust to defend against numerous defensive alignments. As expected, he is at his best when used in the slot. However, he is capable of moving to the box, or playing on the perimeter. It should be interesting to see if Jones is given additional practice time outside the slot; especially if Gilmore is absent for any portion of training camp. He should also be expected to once again be used as a three-unit special teamer, seeing action on the punt return team, kickoff coverage and kick blocking team.
Having signed his second-round tender, Jackson will remain in New England for the 2021 season. Of course, that is assuming he is not traded. Still, he is projected as the number two perimeter cornerback opposite Stephon Gilmore. 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. Again, Jackson’s practice reps might be affected by Gilmore’s presence at training camp. At the very least, he should project as a starting cornerback, asd well as a key member of the Patriots’ secondary.
Arriving as a free-agent this offseason, Mills projects as a versatile option that can be deployed anywhere in the Patriots secondary. Last season with the Philadelphia Eagles, he accounted for 74 combined tackles, 1.5 sacks and an interception. Mills is a versatile defender that is capable of lining up at the cornerback position, or at strong safety, which is where he spent the majority of his 2020 season in Philadelphia. Ideally, the Patriots envision Mills taking on the role vacated by Jason McCourty. As such, Mills should see significant practice time as New England’s third perimeter cornerback, capable of also lining up in the slot and at either safety spot. His four-year, $24 million deal should be considered good value for a player of Mills’ versatility and on-field prowess.