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Offseason preview: Patriots’ cornerback group projects to be among the NFL’s deepest yet again in 2020

Related: Offseason preview: Linebacker has been a position of strength for Patriots in 2019, but how about 2020?

New England Patriots v Miami Dolphins Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images

While the NFL playoffs are still underway with two teams left standing, the New England Patriots will have to set their sights on the season to come: after being eliminated from the postseason on wild card weekend, the offseason has arrived at Gillette Stadium — and it will be one of major intrigue considering that the AFC East champions have a long list of players scheduled to enter free agency once the new league year begins on March 18.

With that being said, let’s break down where the team stands at this point in time one position after the other. Today, we continue with the cornerback position where the Patriots have seven players currently under contract.

Justin Bethel

Position: Perimeter cornerback

Age: 29

Contract status: Under contract through the 2020 season. Bethel has a salary cap hit of $2.0 million in 2020.

2019 review: Bethel started the 2019 season with the Baltimore Ravens, but the team parted ways with him in late October which allowed the Patriots to pick him up. New England signed him to a two year deal and he quickly became an impact player in the kicking game: appearing in 10 games, the veteran special teamer registered six tackles and two fumble recoveries.

2020 preview: Given his success in 2019 and the fact that the Patriots are entering the new season with some questions on special teams — both Matthew Slater and Nate Ebner are free agents, while Brandon King is coming off a season-long stint on injured reserve — Bethel seems like a safe bet to return in 2020.

Stephon Gilmore

Position: Perimeter cornerback

Age: 29

Contract status: Under contract through the 2021 season. Gilmore has a salary cap hit of $18.67 million in 2020.

2019 review: After already being named first-team All-Pro in 2018, Gilmore was able to elevate his game even further this season. Appearing in all 17 of the Patriots’ games, he regularly went up against opponents’ number one wide receivers but was still tied for the league-lead with six interceptions. All in all, he allowed just 41.3% of passes thrown his way to be completed while he Gilmore finished the 2019 season as arguably the NFL’s best cornerback and a candidate to be named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year.

2020 preview: Despite a hefty salary cap hit, Gilmore is a lock to be on the Patriots’ roster in 2020 — he simply is too good. The question will rather be whether or not New England will try to bring his $18.67 million cap number down a bit by possibly extending his contract beyond the 2021 season.

J.C. Jackson

Position: Perimeter cornerback

Age: 24

Contract status: Under contract through the 2020 season. Jackson has a salary cap hit of $663,334 in 2020.

2019 review: Jackson had a solid rookie campaign in 2018, and was able to build on it in this season. Starting the year as as the Patriots’ third outside cornerback, he was elevated to a starting role after Jason McCourty suffered what was essentially a season-ending groin injury in mid-November. The 24-year-old, who appeared in all 17 games, was very good when on the field: he was targeted 57 times but allowed only 22 receptions for 208 yards while coming away with five interceptions.

The former undrafted free agent was tied for the team-lead with seven penalties called against him, but he still had an impressive second year in the NFL.

2020 preview: Given his performance over the last two season in combination with his growth from year one to year two and low salary cap hit, Jackson is guaranteed a spot on New England’s 53-man roster. He is expected to again see considerable playing time in 2020 and could very well take over as the number two opposite Gilmore. Jackson is on his way to set himself up for a major payday, even though he is first scheduled to enter restricted free agency next year.

Jonathan Jones

Position: Slot cornerback

Age: 26

Contract status: Under contract through the 2022 season. Jones has a salary cap hit of $6.02 million in 2020.

2019 review: Before the season started, Jones and the Patriots agreed to a three-year, $21 million contract extension and he lived up to his new deal early on in the season: the former undrafted rookie looked like one of the best slot cornerbacks in football. However, Jones failed to keep up his pace over the second half of the season and also had to deal with a groin injury.

2020 preview: Despite an up-and-down end to his 2019 campaign, Jones will be back next season: his salary cap hit is manageable considering his role, and he performed very well for large portions of last season. The 26-year-old will therefore be a top three cornerback for the Patriots once again in 2020.

Jason McCourty

Position: Perimeter cornerback

Age: 32

Contract status: Under contract through the 2020 season. McCourty has a salary cap hit of $5.75 million in 2020.

2019 review: The Patriots re-signed McCourty on a two-year, $10 million deal during the offseason and he therefore returned as the team’s top perimeter corner alongside Stephon Gilmore. The veteran played very well during the early portions of the season, but a groin injury suffered in mid-November limited him to only eight more snaps over the rest of the season, while he was inactive for five of seven possible games. A disappointing end to an otherwise strong season.

2020 preview: Entering the 2020 season, McCourty’s spot on the roster is not set in stone. Despite his strong play, after all, the Patriots might be willing to part ways with him considering that a) such a move would save $4 million against their salary cap and b) they have youngsters J.C. Jackson and Joejuan Williams waiting in the wings. That being said, McCourty, who underwent offseason surgery on his groin and has a $500,000 roster bonus due before the start of free agency, might still be worth his $5.7 million cap hit considering his experience and proven productivity in New England’s secondary.

D’Angelo Ross

Position: Perimeter cornerback

Age: 23

Contract status: Under contract through the 2021 season. Ross has a salary cap hit of $585,833 in 2020.

2019 review: The New Mexico product, who was originally signed by New England as an undrafted free agent in early May, was competitive during his first NFL training camp: he performed well in one-on-ones and also started to get opportunities with the starting secondary in team work before playing just six games in the preseason opener. The Patriots later waived him with an injury designation in mid-August and he reverted to season-ending IR after not getting claimed.

2020 preview: Ross enters 2020 on the bottom of the cornerback depth chart, but he could very well carve out a role on the team in case he performs well during the offseason on defense and special teams. That being said, the second-year man still faces an uphill climb.

Joejuan Williams

Position: Perimeter cornerback

Age: 22

Contract status: Under contract through the 2022 season. Williams has a salary cap hit of $1.51 million in 2020.

2019 review: Despite New England drafting Williams in the second round, the rookie saw little playing time in 2019. This was not due to his performances on or off the field, however, but rather the Patriots’ depth at the cornerback position. As a result, he appeared in only 10 games and received more snaps on special teams (84) than on defense (80). He did look good in his limited action, though.

2020 preview: Williams’ offseason was off to a rocky start, as he was arrested in Tennessee last week and is reportedly facing drug charges. Nevertheless, the 22-year-old will be back with the Patriots in 2020 and could see an increase role that takes advantage of his unique blend of size and athleticism. Don’t be surprised if he becomes a regular member of the team’s cornerback rotation next year.