The 2021 NFL league might turn out to be a watershed moment for the New England Patriots cornerback group. The team entered it with three high-quality starters under contract — Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson and Jonathan Jones — and furthermore added hyper-versatile Jalen Mills in free agency.
One year later, only half of that group is slated to stay put for the 2022 season. Jones and Mills remain under contract, while Gilmore has already been traded to Carolina and Jackson appears to be on his way out as well.
As a result, the Patriots’ current cornerback group looks as follows:
- Jalen Mills
- Jonathan Jones
- Myles Bryant
- Joejuan Williams
- Shaun Wade
- Justin Bethel
- Joshuah Bledsoe*
On paper, the Patriots’ cornerback group might have been the best in the NFL in March 2021. This one, however, might just be on the other end of the spectrum. Mills and Jones are solid players, but the former is no true CB1 while the latter is a slot option.
The other five cornerbacks under contract are either unproven (Wade, Bledsoe), inconsistent (Bryant, Williams), or primarily special teamers (Bethel). The potential loss of J.C. Jackson would leave the group a lot thinner than desired.
- J.C. Jackson: Unrestricted free agent | Free agency profile
Arguably the top defender to enter free agency this year, Jackson will hit the open market after the Patriots declined to place the franchise tag on him. He will have his fair share of suitors, and while it remains to be seen if he will really earn his desired $20 million per year, he will — rightfully so — join the ranks of the highest-paid cornerbacks in football.
New England giving him a chance to be just that can be questioned given the club’s comparatively limited resources. So, what will the plan be if Jackson jumps ship? Adding more cornerback help via the draft, certainly, but possibly also making a move in free agency.
If that happens, here are a few potential candidates to keep an eye on.
Bryce Callahan (UFA): A solid cover cornerback who played 11 games for the Denver Broncos last season, Callahan gave up catches on 56.8 percent of targets for 296 yards and a touchdown. The 30-year-old was a bit inconsistent as a tackler, though.
Carlton Davis (UFA): Davis missed seven games in 2021 due to a quad injury, but he was a serviceable player for Tampa Bay when healthy. The 25-year-old surrendered a 57.1 percent completion rate and three touchdowns, also registering an interception and a fumble recover.
Rasul Douglas (UFA): One of the surprise stories of the 2021 season, spent time with three teams before breaking out in Green Bay. The former third-round draft pick notched five interceptions in 13 games — including two returned for touchdowns — and gave up a 50 percent completion rate as well as two scores. Teams will have to determine whether his performance was an outlier, or a sign that he turned his career around in Year 5.
Tre Flowers (UFA): Flowers lined up all over the secondary after getting picked up by Cincinnati last season. While he was a bit inconsistent both in terms of performance and playing time, his size — 6-foot-3, 203 pounds — and experience would make him a solid if unspectacular depth option.
Kyle Fuller (UFA): A former first-round draft pick and two-time Pro Bowler, Fuller joined the Broncos last offseason. The 30-year-old held a starting role to open the season, but eventually lost it and was seen as a realistic trade candidate with the deadline approaching. He was not moved, but saw inconsistent playing time down the stretch while struggling to make much of a positive impact for this new team.
Stephon Gilmore (UFA): Gilmore returning to New England after a half-season stint in Carolina seems unlikely. This is the NFL, however: strange things happen on a regular basis, especially at this time of the year.
Antonio Hamilton (UFA): Hamilton was used primarily as a special teamer over the first five seasons of his career, but he nearly doubled his defensive snap number in 2021: 312 of his 649 total career snaps on this side of the ball came with the Arizona Cardinals last season. Hamilton was OK when on the field as a rotational depth option.
Casey Hayward Jr. (UFA): It took Hayward nearly two months to find a new home last offseason, but he eventually ended up producing a pretty good season in his first year in Las Vegas. The veteran surrendered 32 catches on 56 targets for 427 yards as well as three touchdowns and one interception.
Mike Hughes (UFA): Kansas City acquired the former first-round draft selection for a Day 3 pick exchange last spring, and he ended up playing some of the best football of his career. Granted, that is not saying much, but Hughes showed that he can held his own in coverage. Nonetheless, he is expected to come cheap in free agency after seeing inconsistent playing time down the stretch.
Kevin King (UFA): In what was one of the most challenging years of his career, King appeared in just 11 of 18 possible games last season and played some up-and-down football. In a way, he is a reverse Rasul Douglas: as is the case with his teammate, scouts will need to figure out how to properly evaluate his performance in 2021.
Patrick Peterson (UFA): Peterson will turn 32 in July and is coming off an injury-riddled first season in Minnesota. That said, he played some quality football in the seven games he was able to participate in. Most importantly, he showed that he can still perform at a level worthy of a starting spot — one he would probably get if signed by the Patriots.
Jason Verrett (UFA): Injuries have always been Verrett’s biggest issue — he has played just 40 of 119 possible games since entering the NFL in 2014 — and 2021 was no exception: he tore his ACL in the season opener and was done for the year. The 30-year-old will be cheap and a gamble, but if the medicals check out and the Patriots are comfortable using him as a high-upside player he might make sense as a complementary signing.
Levi Wallace (UFA): Five years after signing a Buffalo Bills starting cornerback in free agency, could history be repeating itself? Sure, Levi Wallace is no Stephon Gilmore, but he is a capable player with plenty of starter-level experience. In 2021 and moving between the CB2 and CB1 roles, Wallace surrendered catches on just 58.8 percent of his targets.
Charvarius Ward (UFA): The former rookie free agent had a good season as Kansas City’s top cornerback last year. As such, he held opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating of just 76.1: the 25-year-old gave up 53 catches on 101 targets for 615 yards as well as four touchdowns; he also caught a pair of interceptions.
Make no mistake about it, every player on this list is a downgrade from J.C. Jackson and not on the same level. That being said, there are a few intriguing options available who might be able to help New England — possibly not to fill the CB1 role held by Jackson last season, but as matchup-specific pieces and players capable of performing well with the right supporting cast.
That said, the Patriots secondary will likely be worse off if it loses a player of Jackson’s caliber with no clear replacement available internally or through the open market.