The New England Patriots have multiple needs heading into the 2021 NFL Draft, but few are as glaring as cornerback. After losing Pro Bowler J.C. Jackson in free agency, the team does not have a clear starter for one of its outside spots.
While free agency did give the team an opportunity to bring in some experienced depth in the form of Malcolm Butler and Terrance Mitchell, neither of the two appears to be a long-term fix and heir to the role previously held by Jackson and Stephon Gilmore before him. As a result, the draft appears to be the Patriots’ best chance to find such a player.
There are multiple starting-caliber cornerbacks available this year, which means that the Patriots have options to replace Jackson. One of them is Washington’s Trent McDuffie, arguably a top-three cornerback this spring.
Name: Trent McDuffie
School: Washington (Junior)
Opening day age: 21
2021 season: 11 games, 35 tackles; 36 targets, 16 catches, 111 yards; 1 sack
Size: 5106, 193 lbs, 29 3/4 arm length, 72 3/8 wingspan, 8 3/4 hand size
Expected round: 1st
Strengths: A former wide receiver who has a knack for the football, McDuffie combines a strong athletic foundation with a high football IQ and advanced technical setup. He has some good straight-line speed that allows him to run with NFL-level perimeter wide receivers, and also has shown that he can stay with them at the top of their routes: he rarely wastes any steps while mirroring opposing pass catchers, and has some desired quickness.
McDuffie has also shown an ability to diagnose offensive tendencies quickly, and to react patiently in case a play develops differently than initially planned. His awareness in combination with his range allows him to fly around the football even when a play takes place on the opposite side of the field.
Here’s a glimpse of his elite speed and awareness on the field. He starts out at the top of the screen, and makes a huge tackle. These types of plays pop up all over McDuffie’s tape. pic.twitter.com/3eHrxsuPRK— Ryan Spagnoli (@Ryan_Spags) January 31, 2022
McDuffie also brings plenty of energy to the table, and plays until the whistle. He also has the confidence needed to succeed at the pro level. His athletic skills and build also allow him to make an impact in the running game; he showcases some strong tackling form and is competitive in one-on-one situations or when coming downhill to make a play.
In general, he is has all the traits needed to transition into a true CB1 in the NFL. McDuffie is the type of cornerback the Patriots like due to his size, physicality and smarts.
Another high-effort play here from McDuffie. Type of motor that brings so much confidence/swagger to the defense. Not sure if there’s another corner in this class that plays whistle to whistle as hard as McDuffie. pic.twitter.com/lheURvIyzR— Ryan Spagnoli (@Ryan_Spags) January 31, 2022
Weaknesses: At 5-foot-11, McDuffie lacks elite size at the outside cornerback position. In turn, he might run into some problems when asked to go up against taller receivers or to defend jump-ball passes; he will have to fight for positioning on these plays which in turn might lead to some ill-advised penalties. He also needs to keep working on his press-man technique, not because he is not coachable but because of some limited experience.
His ball production was also not up to his talent levels, and trailing what some of his peers have put up: McDuffie registered just two interceptions in 28 games at Washington.
What would be his role? While Jalen Mills is projected to fill one of the Patriots’ starting outside cornerback jobs in 2021, the other is up for grabs following J.C. Jackson’s free agency departure. McDuffie would be the prime candidate to earn it if indeed selected by New England in the first round later this month. He would therefore play a starter-level role in the team’s secondary either after some lead-up time or, more likely, from Day 1 on.
Does he have positional versatility? McDuffie has seen some snaps as a deep safety and in the slot, but his primary value comes on the perimeter. His 2021 usage reflects that: 85 percent of his defensive snaps as a junior came aligned on the outside. That said, to say McDuffie lacks versatility would be a mistake. Not only has he proven himself capable of playing at a high level in both man and zone coverage concepts, he also has some experience in the kicking game and averaged 8.2 yards on his nine career punt returns.
Who is his competition? Given his status as a projected first-round pick, McDuffie would not face any competition for a spot on New England’s roster. As far as the perimeter starting role opposite Jalen Mills is concerned, he would go up against free agency acquisitions Malcolm Butler and Terrance Mitchell as well as youngsters Joejuan Williams and Shaun Wade. McDuffie would be expected to win that competition.
Why the Patriots? J.C. Jackson’s free agency departure left New England with a massive hole in its defensive lineup, and few rookies would be as well suited to fill it as McDuffie. A likely Day 1 starter who has proven himself as a scheme-flexible defender, he would effectively take over Jackson’s old role as a starter on the perimeter and potential CB1. Getting a starting-caliber player on a manageable deal — one that would include the fifth-year option — sounds like a no-brainer for a team in need of cornerback help.
Why not the Patriots? McDuffie is one of the best cornerbacks available in this year’s draft, and as such might not be around when the Patriots are on the clock at No. 21. With a trade-up unlikely, there is a scenario in which the team simply is in no position to select him. There also is the question of value: Does New England feel it needs to spend a first-round pick on a cornerback if it could trade down and add a likely starter on Day 2 as well?
Verdict: The Patriots have not selected a cornerback in the first round of the draft since Devin McCourty in 2010, but McDuffie is a realistic candidate to end that streak this year. The combination of need and his favorable projection in as versatile a scheme as New England’s would make him a prime candidate for the team if he is still available at No. 21.