Despite some inconsistencies in 2017, the New England Patriots' cornerback position was one of the better units on the team's defense. And even though star cornerback Malcolm Butler was lost via free agency, the cornerback group is still a rather deep one with Stephon Gilmore, Eric Rowe and Jason McCourty the top three options. Adding a cornerback high does therefore not appear to be a need the team needs to fill.
The Patriots hardly ever operate on a need-driven basis, though. As a result, the team could very well be in the market to select a cornerback highly later this week – and if that happens, Louisville's Jaire Alexander might become the team's selection. Let's take a closer look at him.
Name: Jaire Alexander
2017 stats: 6 games, 19 tackles, 1 interception, 4 pass breakups
Size: 5102, 196 lbs, 31 1/8 arm length, 9 1/2 hand size
Combine numbers: 4.38 40-yard dash, 35” vertical, 10’7” broad jump, 6.71 3-cone drill
Expected Round: 1st
Strengths: As evidenced by his three-cone drill and 40-yard dash, Alexander is one of the most agile cornerbacks to enter this year's draft. He displayed plenty of fluidity over his two seasons as a starter on Louisville's defense as well as quick feet and hip movement. This, in turn, allowed him to stick in his assignments' pocket in one-on-one situations and led to him allowing only a 41.8% completion percentage over the last two years (via Pro Football Focus).
Alexander not only stands out due to his athletic skill set, though. He also is an aggressive player in press-man coverage that is able to place his hands well on the player he is coverage to interrupt the timing between quarterback and receiver. Furthermore, Alexander's tape also shows a player with great instincts that recognizes plays well, reacts accordingly and, if need be, patiently prepares for making a play on the ball carrying player.
The 21-year old also comes with plenty of versatility: He is able to play man-to-man coverage both on and off his assignment, has experience on both sides of the field and moves well in space when playing from the slot or in zone schemes. Alexander also has upside as a special teamer able to return punts and serve as both a coverage player and an edge rusher versus field goal and extra point attempts.
Weaknesses: At 5'10, Alexander is a bit on the smaller side when it comes to cornerbacks and combined with his below-average vertical jump numbers might not be able to consistently win jump-balls against bigger opponents. He also comes with less experience than other players, having started just 19 games during his three years at Louisville – in part because of injuries suffered last year.
Alexander was limited to only six games during his 2017 junior campaign after separately suffering a sprained knee and a broken wrist. But even when healthy, there are some questions he is coming with besides his length. Alexander also is inconsistent when it comes to getting off blocks, focuses on the quarterback's eyes too much at times which could lead to manipulation, and needs to locate the football better once in the air.
What would be his role? The Patriots' top three cornerback spots are pretty much set in stone in the form of Stephon Gilmore, Eric Rowe and Jason McCourty. Alexander would therefore start off his career with the team as the fourth, matchup-specific option on the depth chart and a mainstay on special teams.
How many downs can he play? Four, even though he would not be projected to do so early on in his Patriots tenure. Alexander would see most defensive playing time as part of specific nickel and dime packages and then come onto the field again in the kicking game.
What is his special teams value? As noted above, Alexander was a very active special teamer at Louisville. Overall, he ran back 43 for 424 yards and a score in his three seasons with the team. Furthermore, he saw time as an edge rusher on field goal and extra point attempts and has the abilities to serve as a coverage player on both punts and kickoffs.
Does he have positional versatility? As noted above, Alexander can play multiple roles on both defense and special teams. Defensively, he is able to play in man and zone schemes and can be used on the perimeter and in the slot. While his length would make him a less-then ideal matchup for taller receivers, he is shifty enough to effectively cover opposing teams' quicker receivers.
Will his role change from year 1 to year 2? With both Eric Rowe and Jason McCourty entering a contract year, Alexander should be in line to earn a starting role in 2019 as the staring cornerback opposite Stephon Gilmore – no matter if Rowe and/or the younger of the two McCourty brothers are ultimately brought back.
Which current Patriots will he have to beat out? While Gilmore and Rowe offer a slightly different skill set than Alexander due to their height, every other cornerback on the roster would be direct competition for practice and playing time (not a roster spot, though, as Alexander would be a lock) – starting with McCourty, Jonathan Jones and Cyrus Jones.
Why the Patriots? As noted above, two of the Patriots' top three cornerbacks at the moment are entering the final year of their respective contracts. New England is therefore in need to find a long-term option at the position and Alexander would be just that. Despite his injury situation and questions marks regarding his length, he would be a solid player able to contribute from day one forward on both defense and special teams.
Basically serving as an upgrade over Cyrus Jones, Alexander certainly has the talent to become a quality starter further down the line – giving New England some stability at the cornerback position as the team is expected to enter a transitional phase elsewhere in its defensive backfield: Both starting safeties Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung are on the wrong side of 30, after all, and will need to be replaced in a few years.
Why not the Patriots? The Patriots' need at cornerback very much depends on how the team views Cyrus Jones and Jonathan Jones coming off ACL injuries. If the team feels like both players can provide adequate long-term depth at the position, investing a first-round draft choice in Alexander might be too much of a luxury considering the holes the team has to fill elsewhere.
Verdict: Alexander certainly is an intriguing player due to his athleticism and versatility – one that should come off the board in the middle-late portion of round one. And even though the Patriots have plenty of bodies at cornerback right now, he would be a nice addition to the secondary that comes with the potential of turning into a quality starter a year or two down the line. As such, it would not be a surprise to see New England use one of its two first-rounders to get the Louisville prospect on board.