As it is currently constructed the cornerback position once again projects to be a strength for the New England Patriots heading into the season. The impressive outside duo of Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson is complemented by one of the league’s better slot cornerbacks, Jonathan Jones, and hyper-versatile free agency addition Jalen Mills.
Add a group of developmental players led by Joejuan Williams and Myles Bryant and you get a depth chart that is among the best in the NFL. With the long-term future of the group in question, though, the Patriots might be prompted to make another investment after already signing Mills last month. If New England indeed goes after a cornerback few appear to be better options than Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley.
Name: Caleb Farley
School: Virginia Tech (Redshirt Junior)
Opening day age: 22
2020 stats: Opt-out
2019 stats: 11 games (11 starts); 20 tackles; 50 targets, 18 receptions, 257 receiving yards, 1 touchdown, 4 interceptions (1 touchdown), 16 pass breakups
Size: 6017, 197 lbs, 76 1/4 wingspan, 33 3/8 arm, 8 3/4 hand
Workout numbers: N/A
Expected round: 1st
Patriots pre-draft meeting: N/A
#Patriots draft target: VT CB Caleb Farley. Fluid, athletic man cover corner with press-man and off-man abilities. Converted WR/QB that uses those skills to track and anticipate routes.— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) February 9, 2021
Only has one full year at CB and is already technical enough to shut WRs down in press man. pic.twitter.com/kezuAFu4sY
Strengths: Farley offers NFL-caliber size and has the length and height to be successful when matched up against taller wide receivers at the next level. Despite only moving to cornerback in 2018 — he played quarterback in high school and originally moved to wide receiver upon arriving at Virginia Tech — he already is a well-refined player at the position: his instincts and reactionary skills are top notch and he possesses a natural understanding of route distribution and how to out-leverage his matchups.
His impressive burst in combination with fluid footwork allows him to stay in control regardless of whether he plays press alignments, off-man or in zone. He also brings the necessary physicality to the table to disrupt timing patterns and play through his opponent to get to the football. In general, his ball skills are arguably the best in the draft for a cornerback: Farley’s past as a wide receiver is on display repeatedly while his feel for tracking passes as well as timing jumps and breaks is already advanced.
Finishing the 2019 season with 16 pass breakups, Farley was a dominant force during his final year in Blacksburg. His potential is arguably the highest of any defensive back in this year’s draft, and while he also has more questions than other first-round caliber prospects he should be able to flourish regardless of the system he is brought into. Farley has “future CB1” written all over him even though he is only entering his fourth year at the position.
Weaknesses: While his ceiling is enticing, Farley also is a comparatively raw prospect in some aspects — one that shows at times that he has played only 24 career games on the defensive side of the ball. He needs to become more technically sound and consistent as a tackler, having whiffed on some attempts and not yet being where he needs to be against perimeter runs. Farley also has to become less aggressive at times and try not to overplay his hand. His zone awareness also needs to improve.
His injury history is another question mark. Farley suffered a non-contact ACL tear during fall camp in 2017 and had to sit out his entire freshman campaign. He later also missed the final two games of the 2019 season because of nagging back spasms. After opting out of the 2020 season due to Coronavirus concerns he underwent back surgery earlier this year and was therefore unable to work out during the pre-draft process.
Why the Patriots? With both Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson currently scheduled to enter unrestricted free agency after the 2021 season, the Patriots are in need of some long-term stability. Farley would offer them just that while also bringing Pro Bowl-caliber upside to the table: he has all the tools necessary to succeed in New England’s press-man heavy scheme and after a year behind the two veterans could take over the top role next season.
Why not the Patriots? Even beyond his extensive medical history the Patriots might prefer to go with a more pro-ready player than Farley in the first round. His high ceiling cannot be denied, but other cornerbacks expected to come off the board in that range — Jaycee Horn, Greg Newsome II and especially Patrick Surtain II — have a higher floor and could immediately contribute from Day 1. Farley is more of a project due to his inexperience.
What would be his role in New England in 2021? Unless the Patriots decide to move on from either Stephon Gilmore or J.C. Jackson this offseason, Farley would join the team as the number three outside cornerback. As such, he would essentially replace Jason McCourt’s spot on the depth chart — and possibly see a similar workload: depending on the opponent, McCourty played between 40 and 70 percent of defensive snaps when Gilmore was healthy.
What would be his role in New England beyond 2021? Adding Farley to the equation would signal in the end the Gilmore and/or Jackson era in New England. In this scenario one or both of them would be expected to leave after the 2021 season, opening the door for Farley to take over a starting job on the perimeter. While he might not become the new CB1 from the get-go, he would take over the role at one point further down the line.
Does he have positional versatility? Despite his history at quarterback and wide receiver, Farley’s versatility as a cornerback is somewhat limited: he is best suited to play in a press-man scheme and needs to grow a bit more in his understanding of zone coverages. He also was used almost exclusively on the outside at Virginia Tech, with a combined 86 percent of his defensive snaps in 2018 and 2019 coming as a perimeter corner rather than elsewhere.
What is his special teams value? The Patriots rarely use their top outside cornerbacks in the kicking game, and Farley does not project to be an exception. He might see some snaps as an edge rusher on the punt pressure team — a role occasionally played by J.C. Jackson in the past — but other than that has little to no real value on special teams.
Which current Patriots will he have to beat out? Farley would be a lock to make New England’s roster due to his projected status as a first-round draft pick. However, his playing time as a rookie would depend on how quickly he can adapt to life in the Patriots’ system and his performances relative to the other outside cornerbacks on the roster — especially Joejuan Williams and Myles Bryant but also D’Angelo Ross, Michael Jackson Sr. and Dee Virgin.
Verdict: Farley is everything you would want from a future starting cornerback in the NFL; he has the length, burst and conceptual understanding to become a shutdown cover corner at the next level. He is a bit more of a gamble than other top-tier CBs, though, due to his rawness and injury history. Still, if the Patriots feel confident in their evaluation it would not be too surprising to see them go after the 22-year-old in the first round — possibly at No. 15, maybe even after a minor trade down the board.