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Patriots 2021 offseason preview: New England’s cornerback position is set, for now

Related: Patriots offseason preview: New England’s linebacker position faces plenty of questions

Denver Broncos v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

While the NFL playoffs are still underway with two teams left standing, the New England Patriots are already in the process of turning their attention towards what lies ahead: after not qualifying for the postseason for the first time since 2008, the offseason has arrived at Gillette Stadium — and it will be one of major intrigue considering that the 7-9 squad has a long list of players scheduled to enter free agency once the new league year begins.

With that in mind, let’s break down where the Patriots stand at this point in time one position after the other. Today, we continue things at the cornerback position.

Justin Bethel

Age: 30

Experience: 9

Contract status: Set to enter unrestricted free agency on March 17.

2020 review: Entering his first full season with the Patriots, Justin Bethel again served as a core member of New England’s kicking game operation. While he played only one defensive snaps during his 16 in-game appearances, he was outstanding on special teams: Bethel finished as the team leader in special teams snaps (334) and tackles (14), and also blocked an extra point in Week 7 against the San Francisco 49ers.

2021 preview: Given his age and limited value outside the kicking game, Bethel will likely not command top dollar on the open market. Accordingly, it would not be a surprise to see the Patriots bring him back on a cost-effective deal to help shore up their special teams play even with captain Matthew Slater heading into an uncertain future.

Myles Bryant

Age: 23

Experience: 1

Contract status: Under contract through the 2022 season. Bryant has a salary cap hit of $780,000 in 2021.

2020 review: Bryant joined the Patriots as an undrafted free agent and opened the season on the team’s practice squad. Ahead of Week 2, however, he was promoted to the active roster where he remained for the rest of the year. Along the way, Bryant appeared in nine games while being used all over the defensive backfield: he played slot and boundary cornerback, and was also employed as a deep safety.

While Bryant did have some growing pains, the rookie generally performed well and finished the season with an interception and just three catches given up on five passes thrown his way.

2021 preview: Despite his status as a former undrafted rookie, Bryant did show plenty of upside during what was a challenging season for first-year players. Accordingly, the 23-year-old should be expected to again compete for a roster spot this year and possibly see an increased role in case more seasoned players such as Jason McCourty or even Stephon Gilmore are not back in 2021.

Stephon Gilmore

Age: 30

Experience: 9

Contract status: Under contract through the 2021 season. Gilmore has a salary cap hit of $16.26 million in 2021.

2020 review: Coming off one of the most impressive seasons a cornerback has had in recent memory, Stephon Gilmore had a more challenging campaign in 2020. The reigning Defensive Player of the Year appeared in just 11 games: he was diagnosed with Covid-19 in early October and later was shut down for the year after suffering a partially torn quad against the Miami Dolphins in Week 15.

When on the field, Gilmore was again very good even though not quite as outstanding as in 2019 — especially early on during the season. Coming back from his Coronavirus break, however, he returned to his usual shutdown levels and played some magnificent football before his quad injury. All in all, the veteran finished the season with 16 catches given up on 32 targets for 220 yards as well as a touchdown and an interception.

2021 preview: Few players on the Patriots’ roster are worth keeping as close an eye on as Gilmore heading into the offseason. Having played some very good football before his season-ending injury, he is entering the final year of his contract as the most expensive player on the payroll in terms of salary cap impact — all while already on the wrong side of 30. Add all of this up, and you get a player who might be a trade candidate this year.

That said, there is no denying that New England’s defense is a better one with Gilmore on the field. Is that worth more than potential salary cap relief and an early-round draft pick in return? That’s the big question for Bill Belichick and company to answer this year. Looking at it from the outside, everything from a trade to a contract extension seems to be on the table.

J.C. Jackson

Age: 25

Experience: 3

Contract status: Set to enter unrestricted free agency on March 17 if not signed to a restricted free agency tender at that point.

2020 review: After playing more of a rotational role at times in 2019, J.C. Jackson emerged as a viable number two cornerback opposite Gilmore in 2020. The former undrafted free agent once again showed his value to the team: Jackson surrendered only 34 catches on 67 targets for 587 yards. While he did give up five touchdowns on the year, he also ranked second in the league with nine interceptions.

All in all, it was another solid year for him. While Jackson did have some ups and downs filling in for Gilmore as the Patriots’ CB1, he showed again that he can be one of the better cover cornerbacks in football as well as a premier ball-hawk in the league.

2021 preview: After going undrafted in 2018, Jackson is scheduled to hit restricted free agency this season. This means that the Patriots can tag him at one of three levels depending on the value of the one-year tender and possible compensation in case a team signs him away. The expectation is that the 25-year-old gets either the first- or second-round level — depending on whether or not New England may want to encourage other teams to sign him to an offer sheet.

Michael Jackson Sr.

Age: 24

Experience: 2

Contract status: Under contract through the 2021 season. Jackson has a salary cap hit of $800,000 in 2021.

2020 review: In early August, the Patriots sent a conditional seventh-round pick in the 2022 draft to the Detroit Lions to bring Jackson on board. While he was competitive in training camp, he failed to make the roster and was let go — staying on the open market until getting re-signed to New England’s practice squad in late September. Jackson remained on the developmental roster until he was elevated to the 53-man team in early January; he played the first four defensive snaps of his career in the season finale against New York.

2021 preview: Jackson proved himself a physical cornerback last summer, but his outlook for 2021 is still murky. He will likely get a chance to prove himself over a whole offseason and possibly training camp, but his chances of making the team will depend not just on his own development but also the other cornerbacks under contract. If there is an opening, though, he appears to be a realistic candidate to take it.

Jonathan Jones

Age: 27

Experience: 5

Contract status: Under contract through the 2022 season. Jones has a salary cap hit of $7.12 million in 2021.

2020 review: Jonathan Jones’ 2020 season was similar to his 2019 campaign: he served as the Patriots’ top slot cornerback and as such saw regular playing time in the five-plus defensive back packages that New England ran at a high rate. All in all, the former rookie free agent appeared in all 16 games and posted some solid numbers: he surrendered 27 catches on 50 targets for 299 yards as well as three touchdowns and a pair of interceptions.

Jones also continued to see regular playing time on special teams.

2021 preview: Entering the second year of the contract extension he signed last September, Jones can be considered a lock to be on the Patriots’ roster this year despite his comparatively hefty salary cap number. However, he is one of the league’s better slot defenders and as such a valuable piece of New England’s secondary — a unit that appears set at the surface but could see some turnover.

Jason McCourty

Age: 33

Experience: 12

Contract status: Set to enter unrestricted free agency on March 17.

2020 review: After a groin injury limited him down the stretch in 2019, McCourty was back at full strength for the 2020 season and as such again a valuable member of the Patriots’ secondary. Even though the starting outside cornerback role opposite Stephon Gilmore now belonged to J.C. Jackson, the first-time team captain made an impact as a versatile player capable of lining up at various spots — from perimeter corner, to slot corner, to box and deep safety.

But while McCourty appeared in all 16 games during the season, he did show some signs of regression compared to his first two years as a Patriots. All in all, he surrendered 18 catches on 29 targets for 287 yards as well as four touchdowns. No other defensive back on New England’s roster gave up a higher passer rating than his 134.6.

2021 preview: Playing a more specialized role in 2020 and heading into his age-34 season, every option seems to be plausible for McCourty this year: from him returning on a cheap one-year pact, to joining another team as a seasoned veteran, to heading off into retirement. Either way, as opposed to his brother, he is no lock to return.

D’Angelo Ross

Age: 24

Experience: 2

Contract status: Under contract through the 2021 season. Ross has a salary cap hit of $660,000 in 2021.

2020 review: Coming off a year spent on injured reserve, Ross made some positive strides in training camp and did compete for a roster spot. However, the former rookie free agent failed to earn one and spent the entire 2020 season on New England’s practice squad. Even though he was elevated to the game day roster for the season finale, he did not earn any playing time in his second year in the league.

2021 preview: Ross’ experience in the system and cheap contract make him a prime candidate to compete for a roster spot this year again. However, his lack of an impact over his first two seasons with the Patriots makes him a tough player to project: he could break onto the scene as a rotational player after some strides, but could equally likely just be released at one point during the offseason.

Dee Virgin

Age: 27

Experience: 4

Contract status: Under contract through the 2021 season. Virgin has a salary cap hit of $920,000 in 2021.

2020 review: Virgin started his 2020 season on the Lions’ practice squad, but did appear in two games as a special teamer and depth cornerback. He was eventually let go in early December and after a short stint with the Los Angeles Rams’ own practice squad was signed to New England’s 53-man team in early January. However, Virgin did not appear in the Patriots’ season finale.

2021 preview: The Patriots added the 27-year-old with future considerations in mind, and he will likely be given a chance to prove himself on defense and special teams over the course of the offseason. While it remains to be seen what kind of impact the journeyman will make, his contract and experience make him a classic “let’s see what he can do” option.

Joejuan Williams

Age: 23

Experience: 2

Contract status: Under contract through the 2022 season. Williams has a salary cap hit of $1.81 million in 2021.

2020 review: After Williams played only 80 total defensive snaps as a rookie while buried on the depth chart behind the NFL’s best secondary, he opened Year Two with a 27-snap performance against the Miami Dolphins. During that game, the Patriots used him primarily against Dolphins tight end Mike Gesicki; he allowed just one 9-yard catch on two targets.

It was an encouraging outing, but unfortunately not a sign of things to come. Williams played in 14 of the 15 games that followed — he was a healthy scratch in the Week 15 rematch versus Miami — but was on the field for only 144 more defensive snaps after the season opener. Most of his action came in either a highly specialized role, on special teams, or in garbage time, and not like he was used against the Dolphins in Week 1.

2021 preview: The Patriots will likely have to ask Williams to take a bigger leap like the one he showed in 2020. Even though he made some strides in the kicking game between his first and second seasons — he played 176 of a possible 389 special teams snaps this year — whether or not the former second-round draft pick will be up to the challenge remains to be seen. If he fails to do that, however, he might be added to the long list of New England’s second-round disappointments sooner rather than later.