When the New England Patriots won Super Bowl 51 following the 2016 season, their top cornerback trio consisted of Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, and Eric Rowe. Fast forward 15 months and only Rowe remains: Ryan left the team in 2017 and Butler did the same one year later – both will suit up for the Tennessee Titans this season. But despite losing two starting cornerbacks to free agency in back-to-back years, New England is still deep at the position.
Not only is Rowe still on the team and has a good chance of again earning one of the top three cornerback spots, the Patriots also have Stephon Gilmore and Jason McCourty in the fold: Gilmore was brought on board as a high-priced free agent last year and is coming off a very good season as New England's number one cornerback. McCourty, meanwhile, joined the team and his twin brother Devin via trade earlier this offseason.
Gilmore is a lock to make the Patriots' 53-man roster despite his $12.5 million salary cap hit. Even though McCourty and Rowe are not in the same category when it comes to job security – only second round-rookie Duke Dawson is –, it would still be a mild surprise if they did not earn spots on the depth chart. Therefore, only a handful of spots are likely available for the other seven cornerbacks currently under contract to grab.
If the first open OTA practice of the year is any indication, it will be an interesting battle.
Of the seven cornerbacks on the roster who are projected to fight for practice time and ultimately roster spots, none have been in the league longer than third-year men Cyrus Jones and Jonathan Jones. Both are coming off stints on injured reserve after suffering season-ending injuries – Cyrus tore his ACL in preseason, Jonathan injured his ankle in the playoffs – and have not participated in Tuesday's practice.
They will eventually get their chances, though, to fight for their roster lives against the Patriots' young guard at the cornerback position. And the youngsters have made a positive impression two days ago, with two standing out in particular: Rookie Keion Crossen and second-year man Ryan Lewis, who spent the majority of his 2017 rookie campaign on New England's practice squad.
Crossen, who was selected by the Patriots in the seventh round earlier this month, was the best of the bunch on Tuesday by all accounts. Not only did the Western Carolina product, who was the 243rd player to hear his name called during the draft, intercept a Brian Hoyer pass intended for James White, he also broke up two additional passing attempts during only the second OTA practice of his career.
Lewis also had an active session and at one point saw reps with the starting defense opposite Gilmore. The former undrafted free agent, who started his NFL career with the Arizona Cardinals, has yet to play a snap in a regular season game but still left a positive impression with the team last season: Overall, the Pittsburgh product was named as a practice player of the week after four New England wins.
Crossen and Lewis lead the youngsters vying for spots on the team or practice squad – a group that also includes undrafted rookies J.C. Jackson, who had a pass breakup on Tuesday, and A.J. Moore, as well as second-year man Jomal Wiltz. All five will battle against the Joneses for what appears to be a maximum of two open spots behind Gilmore, McCourty, Rowe and Dawson.
But – who knows? – maybe will be able to aim even higher and challenge McCourty's and/or Rowe's standing on the team. Crossen, Lewis and company certainly would not be the first unheralded cornerbacks to find their way onto the roster by beating their competition despite the odds being against them. Malcolm Butler, who won two Super Bowls in New England and signed a five-year, $61 million contract in March, says hello.
But no matter what ultimately happens at the cornerback position, the next few months will certainly be fun to watch.