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Patriots 2021 free agency preview: New England might be interested in low-risk/high-reward defensive backs

Related: Patriots free agency preview: Plenty of linebackers could be on New England’s radar

NFL: JAN 12 AFC Divisional Playoff - Texans at Chiefs Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

While the New England Patriots’ defense as a whole took a major step back in 2020 and was unable to play on the same historic level it did a year ago, it still has one of the better defensive backfields in football heading into the 2021 season. However, that does not mean there are no questions attached to the group — from age, to future contracts, to developmental depth behind the starters.

New England may not be expected to go after any of the big-name defensive backs once free agency begins later this week, but some lower-tier acquisitions might still be in the cards. The team, after all, has never been afraid of bringing high-upside players aboard on reasonable contracts to compete with the talent already in the fold.

Before digging into the free agent options that might be available for the Patriots this week, however, let’s first take a closer look at who the team currently has under contract for the 2021 season at the cornerback and safety positions:

  • Justin Bethel
  • Myles Bryant
  • Patrick Chung
  • Kyle Dugger
  • Stephon Gilmore
  • Michael Jackson Sr.
  • Jonathan Jones
  • Devin McCourty
  • Adrian Phillips
  • D’Angelo Ross
  • Dee Virgin
  • Joejuan Williams

With the exception of J.C. Jackson and Jason McCourty — more on them in a second — New England’s top defensive backs of 2020 are all scheduled to be back next year as well. The biggest question mark might just be the group’s biggest star: cornerback Stephon Gilmore is looking for a new contract this offseason, and might be a candidate to get traded if none can be reached by the two sides. If Gilmore is back with the Patriots, however, the secondary becomes far less of a need to be addressed in free agency.

Three other members of New England’s 2020 defensive backfield are also headed for free agency once the market opens on March 17:

  • Terrence Brooks (UFA)
  • Cody Davis (UFA)
  • J.C. Jackson (RFA)
  • Jason McCourty (UFA)

While Cody Davis is a core special teamer and Jason McCourty and an experienced rotational cornerback and team captain, J.C. Jackson is the biggest name on New England’s free agent defensive backs list. The former undrafted rookie is expected to be tendered at either the first- or second-round level, thus not going anywhere unless another team is willing to essentially trade those picks to the Patriots for his services.

With all that in mind, let’s take a look at free agent defensive backs — in case you are wondering the order is alphabetical and nothing else — New England might be interested in adding under the right conditions.

Chidobe Awuzie

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 26

2020 team: Dallas Cowboys

2020 statistics: 8 games; 38 tackles; 40 targets, 24 catches, 354 yards, 3 touchdowns, 1 interceptions; 1 fumble recovery

Chidobe Awuzie is coming off a challenging season that saw him miss time during the 2020 season on injured reserve due to a hamstring issue, and on the Coronavirus list. When fully healthy, though, he can have some upside as a perimeter cornerback — upside New England might be willing to invest in if the price is right. At the very least, the 25-year-old would be a low-risk/high-reward addition to the Patriots’ secondary.

Gareon Conley

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 26

2020 team: Houston Texans

2020 statistics: N/A

The Patriots have never shied away from giving former first-round draft picks a chance in their system. While not all of them will work out as well as Stephon Gilmore — who was already a well established player with some obvious upside — taking a shot at them might still be worth it. Gareon Conley appears to be such a candidate this year.

A former first-round selection by the Oakland Raiders, he never quite lived up to his potential before getting traded to Houston during the 2019 season. He had some positive moments in his first half-year as a Texan but missed the entire 2020 season following complications from offseason ankle surgery. If healthy, though, he appears to fit the man-based coverage schemes the Patriots are running.

Michael Davis

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 26

2020 team: Los Angeles Chargers

2020 statistics: 16 games; 64 tackles (2 tackles for loss); 104 targets, 63 catches, 724 yards, 3 touchdowns, 3 interceptions

A former rookie free agent, Michael Davis turned into a reliable cornerback during his four years in Los Angeles — one who had the best season of his career in 2020. Despite that, however, Davis is not expected to be too expensive a player once free agency opens. As a result, the Patriots might give him a look as potential competition for Joejuan Williams.

Like the former second-round draft pick, Davis also is a taller defensive back with experience on special teams. If New England wants to put some pressure on Williams heading into his third year in the league, signing the former Charger might be a good and cost-effective move. It also would be one that would help the team cover its bases should Williams not develop like the coaching staff wants him to.

Malik Hooker

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 25

2020 team: Indianapolis Colts

2020 statistics: 2 games; 7 tackles; 1 target, 1 catch, 15 yards, 1 touchdown

Another former first-round draft pick who never quite lived up to his draft status, Malik Hooker is entering free agency after the Colts declined his fifth-year contract option and he tore his Achilles tendon in September. While his injury and uneven development in Indianapolis are red flags, Hooker has upside, youth and experience on his side.

If the Patriots feel confident they can mold him into a reliable player at the free safety position and potential heir to 33-year-old Devin McCourty, they could very well make a run at the 15th overall pick of the 2017 draft. At the very least, Hooker is another player who could pay some high dividends despite costing relatively little.

Desmond King II

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 26

2020 team: Tennessee Titans/Los Angeles Chargers

2020 statistics: 15 games; 55 tackles (2 tackles for loss); 51 targets, 35 catches, 299 yards, 3 touchdowns; 1 fumble recovery

You may have heard this one before: a versatile defensive back, who has value on both defense and special teams and started his career with the Chargers. One year after acquiring Adrian Phillips in free agency and turning him into a cornerstone of their defense, the Patriots could go after one of his former teammates in Desmond King. While a bit up-and-down as of late, his abilities as a rotational slot cornerback and return man could have quite a bit of value from New England’s perspective — especially considering what will likely be a smaller price tag.

Patriots outlook

While the Patriots’ defensive backfield is well-set on paper, trading Stephon Gilmore would create a different dynamic and make the cornerback position a definitive need. But even if the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year is retained for the final year of his contract and beyond, investing in some depth options at cornerback should be on New England’s offseason to-do- list. As far as free agency is concerned, the low-risk/high-reward pool is the one the Patriots should jump into.