Few position groups on the New England Patriots’ roster are as deep as the defensive backfield. Looking at the depth chart nine players can already be identified as de facto locks to make the 53-man team come the cutdown days later this summer.
At cornerback those are Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson, Jalen Mills and Jonathan Jones. At safety, meanwhile, Devin McCourty, Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips will not be going anywhere. Add special teams aces Justin Bethel and Cody Davis and you get a group with only a handful of open spots left — spots that will be the subject of a fierce competition over the course of training camp and preseason.
With that being said, let’s take a look at the players going up to grab them.
CB/S Joejuan Williams, CB/S Myles Bryant, CB D’Angelo Ross, CB Michael Jackson Sr, CB Dee Virgin, S/CB Joshuah Bledsoe, S Adrian Colbert
As can be seen by the labels attached to each player’s name, the Patriots have a lot of versatility among their rotational defensive backs. Joejuan Williams, Myles Bryant and Joshuah Bledsoe all have experience playing multiple roles and can therefore offer depth at both cornerback and safety — giving the team some added flexibility and possibly limiting the need to invest in more than one spots.
Even though they have not shown the same level of versatility so far in their careers, D’Angelo Ross, Michael Jackson, Dee Virgin and Adrian Colbert also have a chance to fight for a limited number of roster spots. Ross and Jackson had their moments during last year’s training camp, while Virgin and Colbert would have to surprise to make the club. Nothing is impossible, however, meaning that they could also emerge victoriously.
The deciding factors
Positional versatility: As is the case at most other positions, versatility certainly could be the difference between making the roster at the defensive back positions or not. Joejuan Williams and Myles Bryant have both shown some upside in this area so far in their respective careers: Williams has seen snaps as a box safety against tight ends, while Bryant regularly moved between safety and cornerback alignments during his 2020 rookie season.
Instincts and play diagnosis: Given how the Patriots use their defensive backs, their instincts are regularly challenged. Just take a player like the aforementioned J.C. Jackson as an example: he may not have an outstanding athletic skillset, but he possesses a natural feel for the game which has allowed him to become into one of the best ballhawks in the NFL over the last three seasons. The players listed above do not need to show the same instincts as Jackson — a bona fide starting cornerback — but they still need to diagnose plays properly and consistently.
Communication: Communication is highly important in the secondary to ensure that the entire unit is on the same page before and after the ball is snapped. The players identified as roster locks above have all proven themselves in this area, while the competitors listed above will have to get up to speed quickly to diagnose plays and communicate with their fellow defensive backs to prevent any coverage or run-fit breakdowns from happening.
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 is no exception: Stephon Gilmore led the league in interceptions in 2019; Devin McCourty has picked off 30 balls over the course of his career; J.C. Jackson has the most interceptions in football over the last two seasons. The Patriots expect their cornerbacks and safeties to aggressively attack the ball, and to finish the play if it ends up in their hands.
Tackling: The Patriots employ an aggressive coverage scheme, which puts pressure on all of its defensive backs to play with a sound technique and some strong tackling. Oftentimes serving as a last line of defense depending on the coverage call, the cornerbacks and safeties will have to be consistent when it comes to taking down opposing ball-carriers. One missed tackle could have fatal consequences, especially when playing in schemes without any additional help deep.
Physicality: One of the reasons why Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson have grown into one of the top cornerback tandems in football is their physicality at the line of scrimmage and into routes: they never shy away from initiating contact and aggressively rerouting their coverage assignments. While physicality at safety can look a bit different — depending on the call they safeties might not align on the line of scrimmage — it still remains important; the rotational backs named above will have to show it regardless of how they are used.
Depending on the circumstances, the Patriots usually carry around 11 to 12 defensive backs on their active roster. With nine of those spots already taken by the players named above, no more than three are realistically open at the moment; the majority of the listed competitors will therefore find itself off the roster come the regular season.
While the actual performance on the practice fields and during preseason games will decide over their fate, we can already identify those who appear to be the favorites heading into the battle: Joejuan Williams, Myles Bryant and Joshuah Bledsoe — the most versatile among the seven defensive backs.
While Williams has disappointed as a former second-round draft pick so far, his athletic skillset remains intriguing and could help him possibly carve out a role as a matchup-specific defender against bigger wide receivers or tight ends. Bryant, meanwhile, had an impressive rookie season as an undrafted free agent and saw considerable playing time at both safety and cornerback down the stretch. Bledsoe was only a sixth-round pick in this year’s draft, but he has the positional flexibility to help in the slot or as a safety.
Seeing all three of them make the club would not be a surprise, at least from the current point of view. Obviously, though, they will have to prove themselves against their competition and, in Williams’ case, relative to their price tag.