By now you’ve probably heard that the cornerback position is a major need for the New England Patriots entering the 2022 NFL Draft. After trading away Stephon Gilmore last October and watching J.C. Jackson depart in free agency earlier this year, the Patriots have a significant hole on the outside and no clear candidates to fill it.
A look at the current cornerbacks under contract shows that while there are several players who offer starter-level experience, none of them should be expected to take over the CB1 spot from Jackson without a significant drop-off:
- Jalen Mills: 28 | Signed through 2024
- Jonathan Jones: 28 | Signed through 2022
- Malcolm Butler: 32 | Signed through 2023
- Terrance Mitchell: 29 | Signed through 2022
- Joejuan Williams: 24 | Signed through 2022
- Myles Bryant: 24 | Signed through 2022
- Shaun Wade: 23 | Signed through 2024
- Justin Bethel: 31 | Signed through 2023
At the moment, Jalen Mills and Jonathan Jones are the only cornerbacks locked into their respective starting spots. Mills is a top option on the outside, but not suited to be a number one, while Jones remains the team’s primary one slot cornerback even after a shoulder injury ended his 2021 season prematurely.
The other starting spot in three cornerback packages would probably go to either Malcolm Butler or Terrance Mitchell right now, two veterans who signed with the Patriots in free agency. Both have considerable experience — Butler, for examples, won two championships during his first tenure in New England — but there are questions about their ability to play on an island at this stage in their respective careers.
For the sake of short-term improvement and long-term stability, the Patriots might look at the draft to upgrade the position. There are several suitable candidates to be added to the roster.
(Just for clarity’s sake: players are listed alphabetically within their respective groups)
N/A: Cincinnati’s Ahmad Gardner and LSU’s Derek Stingley Jr. are the consensus top two at the cornerback position and would be tremendous fits in New England. However, they will be long gone before reaching the Patriots’ realistic trade-up range.
Targets at No. 21
Andrew Booth Jr., Clemson: Bill Belichick has never drafted a player out of Clemson, but Booth Jr. is a realistic candidate to change this. A press-man cornerback capable of taking over the CB1 role previously held by J.C. Jackson, he has the size and fluid moving skills to succeed both in man and zone coverage concepts and to make an immediate impact on the Patriots’ defensive backfield. | Full draft profile
Kaiir Elam, Florida: Speaking strictly in terms of his testing numbers and game tape, there might be some better fits at the cornerback position for the Patriots this year. That said, Elam has the physicality and size to become a very good starting cornerback at the next level, capable of standing his ground on an island as a true number one option. | Full draft profile
Trent McDuffie, Washington: Possibly the number three cornerback behind Gardner and Stingley, McDuffie combines a strong athletic foundation with a high football IQ and advanced technical setup. He projects as a Day 1 starter and has proven himself as a scheme-flexible defender, which would make him an ideal fit for the Patriots in the first round. | Full draft profile
Day 2 targets
Coby Bryant, Cincinnati: Ahmad Gardner’s former teammate at Cincinnati offers legitimate starter-level upside himself. A physical cornerback with considerable experience in man coverage, Bryant projects as a third-round pick. | Full draft profile
Kyler Gordon, Washington: While he is “only” CB6 this year, Gordon’s dynamic athleticism makes him an intriguing prospect and future starting cornerback in the NFL. A developmental prospect with a high ceiling, seeing him find his way into the first round would not be a surprise even though we project him to come off the board on Day 2. | Full draft profile
Marcus Jones, Houston: With Jonathan Jones’ contract up next offseason, the Patriots might be looking to find a replacement sooner rather than later. Jones, who stands at just 5-foot-8 but has played some quality football at Houston, appears to be a well-suited replacement.
Roger McCreary, Auburn: Versatility, press-man experience, leadership, you name it. McCreary checks a lot of the boxes New England is looking for in its cornerbacks. His short arms might be an issue, but he can certainly play at a high level. | Full draft profile
Tariq Woolen, UTSA: One of the most athletic cornerbacks in this year’s draft, Woolen combines a 6-foot-4, 205-pound frame with some serious straight-line speed. He is a developmental prospect but his traits are enticing.
Day 3 targets/Free agency targets
Cam Taylor-Britt, Nebraska: On paper, few cornerbacks fit the Patriots’ system as well as Taylor-Britt. A physical player who excels as a tackler and in run support, he offers scheme and positional versatility. While his upside is limited to a CB2-style role, he can become a productive player in the right environment. | Full draft profile
Marcel Dabo, Tübingen: Trying to follow the Jakob Johnson path from Germany to the NFL, Dabo is not flying under the radar — he isn’t even anywhere near it. However, the 22-year-old is an impressive athlete and based on that alone might be worth a flier as a rookie free agent.
Josh Jobe, Alabama: A natural man coverage cornerback, Jobe is coming off a disappointing season marked by injuries. At full health, however, he can have value as a package-specific player with considerable special teams experience.
Jack Jones, Arizona State: Jones’ off-the-field issues are a concern, but the Patriots have spent plenty of time with him during the pre-draft process. Speaking strictly in terms of his on-field abilities, however, he can become a productive player at the NFL level.
Derion Kendrick, Georgia: Kendrick has all the talent in the world, and in the right setting could become a starter in the NFL. His off-the-field issues — among them his dismissal at Clemson — are the main reason why he is a projected Day 3 pick or rookie free agent.
Damarri Mathis, Pittsburgh: Mathis might come off the board as early as Day 2 due to his combination of scheme flexibility and high motor. His medicals might be a red flag, but he can be a productive starter on the perimeter if given time.
Zyon McCollum, Sam Houston State: McCollum is nothing short of an athletic freak. Registering a perfect 10 out of 10 Relative Athletic Score — tops at the position since 1987 — he has outstanding potential. At the moment, however, he is a better athlete than cornerback and will need time to develop.
Alontae Taylor, Tennessee: Good size. Good speed. Good versatility. Taylor is a very good prospect even though he needs some fine-tuning to become a player you would consistently trust against NFL competition. If he can improve his processing, however, he is a player to watch out for.
Unless the Patriots feel superbly confident in 2020 fifth-round draft pick (and subsequent trade acquisition) Shaun Wade, it seems likely that the team will invest at least one draft pick in a cornerback. Jalen Mills, Malcolm Butler and Jonathan Jones as the starting three would be fine, but the short-term upside of the group is limited and the long-term outlook concerning.
While that does not mean New England will necessarily add a player of the caliber of Andrew Booth Jr., Kaiir Elam or Trent McDuffie, those three are realistic targets. They have something no other cornerback on the team’s current roster has, after all: legitimate CB1 upside.