Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson gave the New England Patriots one of the top cornerback tandems in football, but within a five-month span both left the organization. Gilmore was traded to the Carolina Panthers last October amid a contract dispute, while Jackson left to join the Los Angeles Chargers as an unrestricted free agent.
The Patriots have yet to replace either of the two. Jalen Mills, who served as the starter opposite Jackson in 2021, is a solid player but not of the same quality as the two Pro Bowlers. Free agency acquisitions Malcolm Butler and Terrance Mitchell should not be expected to perform on a similar level this season, despite the starter-level experience both of them bring to the table. The same is true for the young depth options behind them.
Long story short, the Patriots need to add some high-quality players to their cornerback group. And there is no better place to do so than a draft offering plenty of quality prospects beyond the first round.
One of them is Auburn’s Roger McCreary.
Name: Roger McCreary
School: Auburn (Senior)
Opening day age: 22
2021 season: 49 tackles; 75 targets, 34 catches, 442 yards, 1 touchdown, 2 interceptions; 1 sack, 1 fumble recovery
Size: 5113, 190 lbs, 28 7/8 arm length, 70 5/8 wingspan, 9 hand size
Expected round: 2nd
Strengths: McCreary is a fluid athlete who has the high-end speed and physicality to become a successful press-man cornerback at the next level, but also play different alignments and coverage schemes. He offers a loose set of hips and some good balance, which allows him to make his reads quickly and get a jump on the ball. The numbers speak for themselves: in his two years as Auburn’s top cornerback, McCreary caught five interceptions and added 25 pass deflections.
He is able to do that due to his solid anticipatory skills and short-area burst, combined with some advanced instincts and eye use. McCreary has also shown plenty of confidence in his technique; this allows him to be competitive at the line of scrimmage and effective as a jammer and re-router. He displayed all of that at the college level, while being asked to go up against some of the best receivers in college football’s premier conference, the SEC, on a regular basis.
Fluid athlete with loose hips that can cover. Has the speed and short area quickness to make up being beat at the LOS. Patriots need help outside and McCreary can certainly help bring that. pic.twitter.com/Kxo5ORHq9Q— Ryan Spagnoli (@Ryan_Spags) February 7, 2022
McCreary’s value extends beyond his man coverage skills on the outside. He also can be used independent of scheme, and play not just on the perimeter but in the slot as well. He furthermore is willing to help out in run support and has become a vocal leader for the Tigers, especially during his last two seasons.
Here’s another view of McCreary vs. a bigger WR Tre Turner out of VTech. Gets a lot of slack for his short arms but he is technically sound enough to be able to play outside CB. pic.twitter.com/x3lzcpWSz3— Ryan Spagnoli (@Ryan_Spags) February 7, 2022
Weaknesses: Of the cornerbacks measured at the Scouting Combine, nobody had as small a wingspan a McCreary (70 5/8 inches). His short arms are indeed an issue, and could force some teams to take him off their board if they do not feel confident about his projection in their scheme: his physical limitations might hurt his effectiveness to get a solid jam onto opposing wide receivers at the NFL level, or to finish tackles against on a consistent basis.
Tackling in general proved to be a problem for McCreary, with his overaggressiveness in particular hurting him at times. He has a tendency to show his intentions too early, and oftentimes will fall back on pure athleticism rather than technique. This also results in some unnecessary pass interference calls going against him — something that needs to be cleaned up if he wants to successfully compete against pro-level competition.
What would be his role? McCreary played primarily on the perimeter during his 2021 senior campaign at Auburn, and the Patriots would likely use him in this capacity as well. Given his draft status and pro-ready skillset in combination with New England’s lack of depth at the outside cornerback position, he should be able to compete for a starter-level role even as a rookie.
Does he have positional versatility? Even though McCreary projects primarily as a perimeter cornerback in New England’s scheme, he offers plenty of versatility and would therefore be a natural fit for the team’s secondary. Not only has he shown that he can travel across the formation and align both on the outside and occasionally in the slot, he also has looked good both as a press-man cornerback and when asked to play zone coverage shells.
Who is his competition? McCreary would be a lock to make New England’s roster if selected at his expected spot in the second round. As far as earning regular playing time is concerned, he would compete against the Patriots’ current outside cornerbacks: with Jalen Mills probably locked into one starting spot, he would go up for the second against a group currently consisting of Malcolm Butler, Terrance Mitchell, Joejuan Williams, and Shaun Wade.
Why the Patriots? Versatility, press-man experience, leadership, you name it. McCreary checks a lot of the boxes New England is looking for in its cornerbacks. And with the team in the market for help at the position, the 22-year-old makes plenty of sense as a Day 2 selection with immediate starter upside. Even though he would not replace J.C. Jackson one-for-one, at least in 2022, he would raise the group’s floor and long-term outlook significantly.
Why not the Patriots? McCreary’s physical limitations might be a disqualifier for the Patriots, and they are not the only reason why he might not end up in New England. The team, after all, might decide to address the cornerback position earlier than Round 2. And if it goes after a CB in the first round, McCreary also joining the club in the second seems highly unlikely.
Verdict: If the Patriots leave the first day of the draft without having picked a cornerback, McCreary seems to make plenty of sense on Friday. There are some questions — hence his second-round projection — but the team would be getting a technically and athletically sound player who has experience going up against high-quality competition and could take over a starting role right away.