J.C. Jackson signing a five-year, $82.5 million contract with the Los Angeles Chargers leaves the New England Patriots with considerable questions at cornerback. How those will be answered over the coming days and weeks could shape the position for years to come, and in turn impact New England’s defensive success during the early years of the Mac Jones era.
Even with Jackson no longer part of the equation, however, the Patriots have some options to replace his contributions as their top outside cornerback. While all of them would present a downgrade — a testament to his strong play, especially in 2021 — they can be successful additions.
With that said, let’s take a look at some of them broken down in three categories.
Jalen Mills: The Patriots signed Mills to a four-year contract last offseason, eventually giving him the starting spot on the outside opposite J.C. Jackson. He had some ups and downs but generally performed well in his first year on the job. However, his ability to take the next step and become New England’s CB1 can be questioned; Mills is a solid starter but he is no player you would trust against opposing number one wide receivers without help.
Joejuan Williams: The Patriots traded up in the second round of the 2019 draft to pick up Williams, and so far he has disappointed. In 2021, he was benched twice for uneven performances and ended up playing just one third of the team’s defensive snaps. In reality, he should be closer to the door rather than a starting spot.
Shaun Wade: The big unknown in New England’s cornerback room, Wade entered the league as a fifth-round draft pick by the Baltimore Ravens last year. After being traded to the Patriots in August, he went on to play only 11 combined defensive snaps over his three in-game appearances while essentially being on a redshirt plan. His combination of size, athleticism and skillset is intriguing, but he is merely a projection at this point in time.
Free agency options
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.
Rasul Douglas (UFA): One of the surprise stories of the 2021 season, Douglas 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.
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.
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.
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.
Darious Williams (UFA): From a statistical perspective, the 2021 season was a regression for Williams: he saw an increase in reception rate and touchdowns given up, while his interceptions went from five to zero. That said, he was still an integral part of Los Angeles’ Super Bowl-winning defense and showed that he can play with the best wide receivers in the NFL.
Andrew Booth Jr. (Clemson): Arguably the third best cornerback available in this year’s draft class, Booth Jr. is a realistic options for the Patriots with the 21st overall selection. An excellent athlete who has the size and physicality to take on bigger receivers in man-to-man coverage, his upside is immense. He might need some time to develop, but Booth Jr. has all the makings of a future shutdown cornerback.
Kaiir Elam (Florida): A long defender who struggled with injuries the last two years, Elam has shown that he can successfully shadow opposing X-receivers. He might be a bit over-aggressive at times in his angles and run support, and might struggle against smaller and shiftier wideouts, but his success at the SEC level makes him a player to watch late in the first or early in the second round.
Kyler Gordon (Washington): Gordon needs to get more patient and consistent in applying his technique, but he is a dynamic and scheme-flexible defender who can find success in both man and zone coverage calls. His nose for the football and reactionary quickness are on a very high level as well.
Roger McCreary (Auburn): An athletically impressive prospect who combines good speed with natural instincts, McCreary should be on the board at No. 21 and maybe even be available after a trade-down out of the first round. His lack of length might be an issue, especially if asked to align on the perimeter, but his skillset is very refined for a player his age.
Trent McDuffie (Washington): McDuffie is a former wide receiver who combines everything New England likes in its cornerbacks: he offers superb quickness, route awareness, and a physical edge. His ability to play press-man at an NFL level is a question mark but his foundation is undoubtably a strong one.
Even with the Patriots out of position to draft the top two at the cornerback position in this year’s class — LSU’s Derek Stingley Jr. and Cincinnati’s Ahmad Gardner — they have plenty of intriguing options available late in the first and early in the second round. New England investing in one of them, plus a veteran option in free agency, appears to be the best course of action moving forward.
No matter what happens, however, the team will likely experience a drop-off in 2022. Jackson played at a high level as the Patriots’ CB1 last year, and was well-established within the club’s secondary from a role and communication perspective let alone as one of the better ballhawks in football.
Expecting an outside addition to step in and replace Jackson one-for-one is therefore unrealistic. That being said, the 26-year-old is just the first domino to fall.