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Patriots training camp competitions to watch: Slot cornerback

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Who will earn the nickel and dime roles in New England’s secondary?

New England Patriots Vs Chicago Bears At Soldier Field Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Few secondaries in the NFL are as deep as the New England Patriots’ — one that features playmaking ability across the board, combined with experience and developmental upside. That being said, only three of the roles within the unit are actually etched in stone: Devin McCourty will be the starting free safety, with Patrick Chung as his strong/box safety counterpart. Stephon Gilmore will be the number one cornerback.

This, in turn, leaves plenty of room for competition between the remaining cornerbacks on the roster — especially when it comes to the slot cornerback position. When looking at the list of competitors, we will see a lot of talented names that should find their way onto the 53-man roster. Will they live up to the expectations, though? And how will their actual roles look like? Let’s try to break it down.

The competitors

CB Jason McCourty, CB J.C. Jackson, CB Jonathan Jones, CB Duke Dawson Jr, CB Keion Crossen, CB Ken Webster, CB D’Angelo Ross

New England has an intriguing mix of relatively proven talent and youth among its cornerbacks projected to see regular action in the slot: Jason McCourty and J.C. Jackson, for example, played significant snaps from the inside last year but are also capable of moving to the boundary. Meanwhile, Jonathan Jones proved his value as a slot cornerback/free safety hybrid that also plays a key role on special teams. The latter also is true about Keion Crossen.

The rest of the group listed above, meanwhile, has yet to appear in an NFL game. Duke Dawson, a second-round pick last year that was essentially redshirted, is the player to watch among them. Rookies Ken Webster and D’Angelo Ross, on the other hand, are bubble players who need to prove their value on special teams to potentially earn the final spot alongside roster locks McCourty, Jackson, Jones and Dawson (as well as Gilmore and Joejuan Williams).

Speaking of Williams, he will also somewhat factor into the equation in the slot. His role will likely be more package specific than any of the other players’ listed above, however.

The deciding factors

Instincts: You may be the best athlete on the field but if you lack instincts as a cornerback, your time in the NFL will be limited. Just look at the aforementioned J.C. Jackson, for example: he did not have draft pedigree or outstanding measurables, but he showed a natural feel for the game almost immediately after joining the Patriots as an undrafted free agent. The younger players on the roster — primarily Dawson — need to prove that they have similar skills in this area as well.

Quickness and acceleration: Playing slot cornerback is similar to playing slot wide receiver: you have a lot of space to operate with, but need the quickness and short-area acceleration to be successful. When it comes to competition for playing time or a roster spot in the slot, the athletic profile of each competitor will be a key factor. Players like Jones or McCourty have proven themselves in this area.

Tackling and technique: As is the case at the outside cornerback position, slot corners need to be able to attack their matchups and apply their technique — from hand usage to footwork — no matter the coverage New England plays. The main difference is that man-to-man concepts do not have the advantage of using the sideline as a natural boundary. Technique and tackling (and the aforementioned instincts) become therefore even more important when playing in the slot.

Ball skills: Whether it is bat-downs, tips or interceptions, defensive backs need to be able to play the ball. New England’s current group of cornerbacks is no exception: Jason McCourty registered 15 ball contacts during the 2018 season; Jones and Jackson had 9 and 7, respectively. The youngsters on the roster need to show similar production in order to carve out a consistent role on the Patriots’ defense this season.

Positional versatility: As is the case at most other positions, being versatile certainly helps. Whether it is Jones’ ability to play slot cornerback and free safety, McCourty’s and Jackson’s skills in playing on the perimeter and on the inside, or Crossen’s special teams contributions — they all do more than just one thing. And the more you can do, the better your chances at making the team and finding a spot on it.

The prediction

As noted above, six cornerback spots are already taken: Stephon Gilmore, Joejuan Williams, Jason McCourty, J.C. Jackson, Duke Dawson Jr. and Jonathan Jones are all locks to make the Patriots’ 53 this year. That being said, there is still plenty of training camp competition ahead of us in the slot:

  • How will McCourty, Jackson and Jones split time on the interior?
  • Will Dawson be able to challenge Jones’ role as a slot corner/free safety hybrid?
  • Who will get the final roster spot? Keion Crossen, Ken Webster or D’Angelo Ross?

The questions will get answered over the next month, but it is not hard to see that McCourty and Jones will be the most prominent slot options depending on the opposing players: both have plenty of experience and slightly different styles to combat various types of wide receivers. Jackson, meanwhile, will see regular action as well but primarily move inside whenever his one-on-one matchup does.

Dawson will probably also see his fair share of action, but still is projected to be behind Jones on the depth chart. The veteran is too established a presence, after all, and will keep the job for the foreseeable future. Dawson, however, could be groomed to potentially take over for the impending free agent in 2020.

The battle between the depth guys, finally, will come down to special teams contributions and defensive upside. Crossen and Webster have the best outlook when it comes to winning this competition given their experience (Crossen) and intriguing athletic profile (Webster).