Today we’re taking a look at one defensive position that will look a bit different this year — cornerback.
For the last two seasons, Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan have been fixtures at cornerback. We were all a bit panicky when they were the two to replace Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, but the duo ably replaced that Super Bowl-winning duo with a Super Bowl victory of their own.
Ryan departed for the Titans this offseason, a departure few Patriots fans would’ve ever thought they’d find disappointing after Ryan began his career with two seasons of being a favorite target of pundits. But Ryan emerged as a consistent player with outstanding tackling skills who could match up with bigger receivers.
Ryan’s ability to shift into the slot is a role not easily replaceable. That is one of the bigger questions facing the defense this summer.
Of course it helps that the team signed Stephon Gilmore, a soft spoken, man coverage corner who seems to be fitting in great. However, Gilmore is an outside corner, as is 2016’s third corner, Eric Rowe. Who replaces those vital snaps Ryan gave them inside is not easily apparent, and plenty of guys were getting looks in the slot during OTAs, including last year’s special teams rookie standout Jonathan Jones and 2016 second-round pick Cyrus Jones.
Regardless of how the slot plays out, the team has really solid depth, including a trio of undrafted rookies who should all make some plays during training camp. At the top there’s plenty of talent to not only replace Ryan, but to be even better, though his physicality and consistency will certainly be missed.
Here’s a closer look at all the corners.
Stephon Gilmore – Gilmore was the surprising prized piece of the Patriots external free agency foray this offseason, signing a whopping five-year, $65 million deal. His fit in the system is obvious — he’s a versatile man cornerback coming off his first Pro Bowl season in which he had five interceptions. A film junkie who lacks the usual cornerback-type flair, Gilmore replaces Logan Ryan and should give the Patriots a potent secondary that can cover anyone.
Malcolm Butler – Most of us thought it would be the restricted free agent Butler who got the monster deal this offseason, but instead the Patriots tagged him with a first round tender and will let him play out his last year before hitting free agency. Despite numerous trade rumors, Butler now appears to be locked in on spending another year in New England, giving the Patriots their best man-coverage cornerback pairing since Ty Law and Tyrone Poole. Don’t feel too badly for Butler, he went from making $600K in 2016 to nearly $4 million in 2017. The Patriots could consider using the franchise tag in 2018 to squeeze another year out of Butler, who should play with even more edge than we’re accustomed to.
Eric Rowe – The Patriots sent a fourth round pick to the Eagles for Rowe early last season and the tall corner carved out a role in sub packages, playing 43.3 percent of the snaps. Rowe would come on and play on the outside, while Logan Ryan would shift into the slot. Now, with Gilmore and Butler also skewing more outside, there’s question how Rowe’s role might evolve in 2017. But he’s got good height (6’1”) so the team should find a use for him. He is signed through 2018.
Cyrus Jones – It was a nightmare rookie season for Jones, but mostly because of multiple muffed returns on special teams. On defense, he got his feet wet, playing 147 snaps and looking far more comfortable not having to worry about catching the ball. He was an easy target for criticism as a rookie, but his talent is undeniable and hopefully having the offseason to reset will get Jones back on track. He could have a shot at real playing time in the slot and, yes, as a punt returner if he can put his shaky rookie year behind him.
Justin Coleman – After starting the year as the top slot corner, Coleman slowly faded from the picture until he was inactive for most of the last two months. He played just 21 percent of the snaps on the year, but the Patriots still tendered him a RFA offer, locking him with the team for one more year. A physical player, his fall from grace is hard to pin down, but seemed to coincide with the rise of Eric Rowe. There’s still a need in the slot with Logan Ryan’s departure so perhaps that could lead to Coleman’s re-emergence.
Jonathan Jones – Jones made the team as an undrafted rookie last season and immediately become a solid special teamer, finishing with 12 tackles on the year. He also saw some time on defense toward the end of year. His early muffed punt recovery against Denver set the tone for the game. He’s a near-lock for his special teams skills and is a reliable backup at cornerback.
Dwayne Thomas – An undrafted rookie out of LSU, Thomas is an aggressive slot cornerback who is smart and can understand pattern concepts.
DJ Killings – An undrafted rookie out of Central Florida, Killings is super smart and aggressive, though undersized. The Patriots thought enough of him to give him a $20K guarantee along with an $11K bonus. That doesn’t make him a roster lock, but does make him someone to watch this summer.
Kenny Moore – An undrafted rookie out of Valdosta State, Moore is just 5’9” but ultra competitive. Returned two interceptions for touchdowns, including one for 94 yards.
DJ Dean – An undrafted rookie out of Arkansas, Dean had 24 tackles as a senior while also playing special teams.
Will Likely – Likely was signed after Corey Vereen was hurt during offseason workouts. He’s an undrafted rookie out of Maryland who was a three-year starter before tearing his ACL during his senior year. He’s undersized at 5’7”, but was All Big 10 as both a sophomore and junior, as well as an All American punt returner in 2015. He joins the undrafted rookie log jam at corner and will need to make consistent plays on the ball to have a shot at the practice squad.