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2021 Patriots positional preview: Defensive backs

Related: Patriots positional preview: Linebackers

New York Jets v New England Patriots Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Keeping with the theme of improved defensive units, it looks like the New England Patriots’ defensive back group should be able to return to their 2019 form this upcoming season.

That may be a bit optimistic for some, but the unit underwent the least amount of change this offseason. The moves they did make and the progression they are expecting out of young players, however, is a sign that they can improve significantly from their 2020 form.

The team still has a few questions to answer past the 2021 campaign, but the unit they currently have under contract is a talented and versatile one. Perhaps no single player represents those values more than the first man on this list.

Devin McCourty

Entering year number twelve in New England, Devin McCourty has the opportunity to move into second place on the list of games played by a Patriots’ defender. Add that to his Super Bowl rings, Pro-Bowl births, and numerous big plays, you’ve got one of the best resumes we’ve ever seen from a Patriot.

McCourty has been there through it all, he endured the early 2010’s and the heartbreak that those seasons had to offer, Dynasty 2.0 and all of its glory, and now leading the transition into life after Tom Brady.

It’s clear that McCourty’s become the unquestioned leader of the team. From his off field efforts to his on-field talent and tenure he is without a doubt a major part in helping lead the franchise into its new era.

Stephon Gilmore

The holdout for Stephon Gilmore seems to be over with... for now. The 2019 Defensive Player of the Year reported to Gillette Stadium on Thursday as rookies and some of the veterans are starting to show up and gear up for camp next week. Gilmore, who is entering the final year of his five-year $65 million dollar contract, is set to earn just $7 million this year after the Patriots moved money last year.

It is unknown what will come out of the game of cat and mouse between the Patriots and Gilmore when it comes to his contract but one thing is for certain; the Patriots are a much better team when Gilmore is on the field. Coming off off-season quad surgery, Gilmore will start camp on the PUP list as he steadily returns to football activities. With Gilmore and J.C. Jackson both set to be unrestricted free agents following the season, the Patriots have a decision on their hands with both their top cornerbacks.

J.C. Jackson

Like Gilmore, Jackson is set to hit the open market following the 2021 season. The former undrafted free agent has done nothing but lock people down since he stepped foot in New England. Jackson signed his second-round tender this off-season and is set to earn just over $3.3 million this season. Jackson spoke this week to NFL Network’s Mike Giardi this week stating that “of course he’s a No. 1 corner” and “won’t settle for less.”

Jackson is coming off arguably his best year as a pro as he finished second in the NFL with 9 interceptions and had his best coverage grade, per PFF. The strength of the Patriots still starts with their secondary and that is led by both Jackson and Stephon Gilmore.

Kyle Dugger

Remember when we said something about continued growth from young guys playing a major role in the improvement of this unit? We were talking about Kyle Dugger.

The second-year man out of Lenoir-Rhyne University made a quick impact in his rookie season, watching his role and importance to the team grow each and every week. He started the season off as a rotational player who only saw 11 snaps in his debut, by the end of the year he had started at three different positions and served as a defensive chess piece in New England’s season finale.

With Patrick Chung (hopefully) enjoying retirement, the man who took over his No. 23 jersey will likely play a similar role on the back end of the defense alongside McCourty. Having a pair of versatile and talented players play the last line of your defense is never a bad thing. Expect s big time jump from Kyle Dugger in year two.

Jonathan Jones

There aren’t too many players in the league that are as good and consistent at their job as Jon Jones is. Rated yearly as one of the best slot corners in the game, Jones has consistently lined up across the league's fastest and quickest receivers. A lot of what Jon Jones doesn’t show up in the box score but his speed and physicality are extremely important to what the Patriots try to do on a weekly basis.

Jones is one of the most versatile players on the Patriots defense by locking down opposing offense’s quickest players while also chipping in and being able to defend the run on the outside. He will, once again, see regular action in nickel and dime packages and be on the field for most of New England’s defensive snaps.

Jalen Mills

Fresh off signing a four-year, $24 million dollar contract, Jalen Mills is set to be another versatile chess piece in Bill Belichick’s defense. With experience ar both corner and safety, Mills saw time at outside corner in mini-camp with the absence of Stephon Gilmore.

Mills lined up all over the place in his time in Philadelphia and will likely see time in the box and could see some reps at outside corner or even strong safety. He’s proven to be much better safety than he is a corner but with the depth and talent in the secondary, the Patriots will have a lot of fun lining him up all over the formation.

Adrian Phillips

Adrian Phillips was one of the bright stars in the Patriots defense last year. Due to the opt out of Patrick Chung, Phillips took on his role as a box safety and lined up across tight ends. Despite struggling at times and being small for the role he played last year, Phillips plays hard and got better as the year got on. The former All-Pro special teamer will see time there as well as a depth piece in the Patriots defense when they want to get a bit heavier in the box.

Myles Bryant

One of 2020’s pleasant surprises, Myles Bryant has a tremendous opportunity ahead of him in 2021. One of last seasons undrafted free agents to crack the roster, Bryant saw a steady uptick in playing time as the season progressed, capping off his 2020 with six straight in-game appearances.

Bryant’s opportunity could perhaps come in being able to push a guy like Jonathan Jones for playing time. Though we all know Jones has been a constant unsung hero for New England, scaling back his playing time may be beneficial in keeping the top unit fresh while also helping progress a young player like Bryant. As the only two true slot corners on the roster, it should be a fun and friendly competition in training camp to see whether or not Bryant can push for split reps.

Joejuan Williams

Time is running out for Joejuan Williams to prove his worth to Bill Belichick and the Patriots defensive staff.

What began as a a slow start in 2019, has slowly morphed into an inability to find a way onto the field at not just cornerback but safety as well. Stuck behind Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson on the outside, Williams was given reps at safety then stashed away on special teams.

So how can Williams and/or the Patriots carve out a role for the former second round pick? It starts with an expanded opportunity at safety, where he was actually pretty good in matching up against tight ends. As Kyle Dugger continues to progress and moves around like a chess piece, the defense will need a tight end stopper and Williams could very well turn into that guy.

Joshuah Bledsoe

Bledsoe was a sixth-round pick in April’s draft and was placed on the NFI list earlier this week. Bledsoe broke his wrist during senior bowl week and will likely take a redshirt year due to his injury and the depth in front of him. Bledsoe will likely miss a lot of camp and will hope to compete for a roster spot in 2022.

Adrian Colbert

There isn’t a single person on the team happier to be a New England Patriot than Adrian Colbert. His Twitter has been a non-stop thrill ride since signing in May.

It’s still to be determined whether his enthusiasm will lead to a roster spot, but he does have a few traits that spell good news for those prospects. First off, Colbert has been a core special teamer throughout his career, and a damn good one at that. Secondly, he has noticeable positional versatility having played in a few different alignment through his time in San Francisco, Miami, and New York. The Patriots may not NEED a player with Colbert’s profile, but they certainly do LOVE to have them.

Michael Jackson Sr.

N’Keal Harry’s arch nemesis returns for his second year in New England with some new opportunities ahead of him.

Coming to New England later than most in 2020, Jackson’s road to a roster spot was perhaps the longest. With little actual work in camp, he was forced to rely on the limited knowledge of the Patriots system he had from playing for Matt Patricia in Detroit.

This year Jackson Sr. was afforded a full offseason program to build on that limited knowledge and will get three preseason games to display the physicality and ball skills that stood out in his time at the University of Miami.

D’Angelo Ross

2019’s surprise cut, Ross has played very well in his two Patriot training camps but hasn’t been able to parlay his performances into a full-time roster spot.

He was doomed from the start in 2019, missing out on a roster spot due to the draft status of Joejuan Williams. He looked to be in a prime position to make the team out of camp last year because of the uncertainty for undrafted rookies, but was edged out by Myles Bryant.

2021 will likely be his last chance to stick around in New England, few players find themselves on a single practice squad for three straight seasons. His ability to both play on the perimeter as well as in the slot may give him some added value to find a home following the preseason.

Dee Virgin

Virgin comes to New England after leading the Lions in special team snaps in 2020 and will likely be the odd man when competing for cornerback snaps. However, the proven special teamer may be able to claw his way onto the roster due to how much the Patriots value special teams. Virgin is a third-year pro and has appeared in 21 games playing just two defensive snaps and 447 on special teams.

Can the Patriots lock up both Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson?

With the Patriots set to have a comfortable room of cap space in 2022, it is possible that the Patriots will be able to retain both Gilmore and Jackson beyond 2021. However, with both players feeling that they are No. 1 corners and Jackson likely to get paid much more on the open market, the Patriots could have a decision on their hands if they’d rather pay the proven, true CB1 who is aging a bit in Gilmore or the up and coming lock down J.C. Jackson? It will be a question that will be answered in due time based on what the Patriots do with Gilmore’s contract prior to the 2021 season.

Jalen Mills: Safety or Corner?

As the little girl in the Old El Paso taco shell commercials would say, “Why not both?” After all, the Patriots have had a ton of success helping players make the switch between both positions. Jonathan Jones, a cornerback by trade, was thrown in at safety during Super Bowl LIII after all.

Mills is a guy who can and has done both in the past and will certainly be tasked with doing both in the future.

What does the future look like at both corner and safety?

Corner: Uncertain is probably the best word to describe the future of the cornerback position for the Patriots. Despite boasting one of the league’s best three man units in Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson, and Jonathan Jones; none of those three men is signed beyond the 2022 season. Jalen Mills, the presumed top reserve, was recently signed to a four year contract but has yet to see a snap in New England. Myles Bryant has overperformed and Joejuan Williams has underperformed in their limited snaps. In all honesty it’s hard to get a read on the future of this phenomenal group because it’s likely that it will look very different in the coming years.

Safety: On the opposite end of the spectrum, the safety position is looking pretty sturdy, especially if there is continued growth from what we saw one season ago.. Despite his advanced age, Devin McCourty is still physically capable and can go for however many seasons he wants to. Dugger staked his claim as the heir apparent to Patrick Chung with his play in 2020 and will without a doubt carry an important torch into 2021. Mills will play his hybrid role, Adrian Phillips can fall back into his true spot of safety. Joshua Bledsoe and Adrian Colbert will battle for a spot in the competitive group. No need to worry about this group as they are set up for success.