The New England Patriots’ defensive secondary is in a transformation process. The days of having Pro-Bowl-caliber player at both outside cornerback spots appear to be over for now, with J.C. Jackson having left the team in free agency and Stephon Gilmore already getting traded to Carolina last October.
While the Patriots still have impressive depth at safety, the cornerback depth chart remains a mystery as of right now. If mandatory minicamp is any indication, Jalen Mills, Malcolm Butler, Terrance Mitchell and rookie Jack Jones will all prominently feature into the mix.
Of course, a lot can change between now and the start of the regular season on September 11. What is already clear, however, is that the Patriots secondary will look different — and that it will face some massive challenges during the regular season, both in terms of receiving talent and quarterback play.
With that said, let’s go through the projected starting QBs on New England’s schedule to find out what to expect.
Tua Tagovailoa, Miami Dolphins: The former first-round draft pick had his ups and downs during his first two seasons in the NFL, but the Dolphins are banking on him to keep establishing himself as their undisputed QB1. It remains to be seen whether or not he will be able to do that, but two things have to be kept in mind as it pertains to his two games versus New England this year: 1.) His supporting cast now features All-Pro wideout Tyreek Hill on top of returning starters Jaylen Waddle and Mike Gesicki; 2.) He is 3-0 against New England.
Mitchell Trubisky, Pittsburgh Steelers: Despite the Steelers investing a first-round draft pick in Kenny Pickett earlier this year, Trubisky appears to be the frontrunner to earn the starting quarterback job to open the regular season. Either way, the Patriots’ new-look secondary will face a favorable matchup on paper in Week 2.
Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens: Jackson is one of the biggest playmakers the quarterback position currently has to offer, and as such a threat both as a passer and a runner. New England, of course, did not just rebuild its outside cornerback position, the team also is in a process of reconstructing its linebacker corps; the group will face a major challenge in Week 3 as Jackson cannot be allowed to take over as a runner.
Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers: Even at age 38, Rodgers is projected as a top-five quarterback in the NFL. The future Hall of Famer is capable of exploiting any weakness in a secondary, and the Patriots will have to bring their A-game to find success against him in Week 4. One advantage they might have is that the Packers’ receiving corps is also in a state of transition after losing Davante Adams and Marquez Valdes-Scantling this offseason. Facing the group early in the season is certainly no disadvantage.
Jared Goff, Detroit Lions: The Lions decided to stay put at quarterback, meaning that the Patriots will get to square off against Jared Goff for the first time since the Los Angeles Rams traded him to Detroit. New England’s D looks fundamentally different nowadays compared to its previous meetings with Goff in 2016, 2018 and 2020, but it still should have the advantage versus the former first overall draft pick.
Deshaun Watson, Cleveland Browns: Watson is the biggest question mark on New England’s schedule right now. With 24 lawsuits against him alleging sexual misconduct and sexual assault, there is no guarantee he will be on the field when the Patriots visit in Week 6. If Watson is suspended or on the commissioner exempt list, the team might face either a disgruntled Baker Mayfield — who wants out of Cleveland following the Watson trade — or ex-Patriots backup Jacoby Brissett.
Justin Fields, Chicago Bears: Week 7 will bring a battle of sophomore QBs selected in the first round of last year’s draft. Fields played some up-and-down football in 2021 compared to the Patriots’ Mac Jones, but his upside as a dual-threat quarterback is still immense; he will be a challenge even if not yet on Lamar Jackson’s level.
Zach Wilson, New York Jets: Wilson was a mixed bag for the Jets last season, but is in line for a major jump in Year 2. His head-to-head matchups with Mac Jones this year will be interesting to watch, especially considering that both have a solid supporting cast surrounding them. The question from a defensive perspective is whether or not the Patriots’ cornerback group can keep up with the likes of Elijah Moore, Corey Davis and first-round rookie Garrett Wilson.
Matt Ryan, Indianapolis Colts: Ryan is 0-5 in his career against the Patriots, but he has a solid team around him in Indianapolis and presents an upgrade over last year’s starter, Carson Wentz. That said, if New England’s defense is starting to hit its stride at the right time it should be able to limit the damage the former league MVP can do, despite some experience already under his belt by early November.
Kirk Cousins, Minnesota Vikings: Their Thanksgiving game will see the Patriots take on Kirk Cousins and the Vikings, a matchup that currently has them listed as 1.5-point underdogs (per DraftKings Sportsbook). Cousins has been better than his rep, after all, while his supporting cast features the two-headed wide receiver monster of Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen.
Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills: Together with Aaron Rodgers, Allen is the best quarterback on New England’s schedule this year — and the team will face him twice. Based on the last two seasons, he will be a massive challenge for the Patriots’ defense as a whole: Allen has developed into one of the best passers in the league and is still a threat as a runner as well. He was nearly unstoppable in 2021, and his supporting cast did only get better with the addition of offensive lineman Rodger Saffold in free agency.
Kyler Murray, Arizona Cardinals: While he was less efficient as a runner last season, Murray remains one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the game today. Containing him will be key, as will be slowing down one of the best pass catchers the NFL has to offer: DeAndre Hopkins will be back from his suspension by Week 14, and the Patriots need to find somebody that can cover him. At the moment, former Cardinals teammate Malcolm Butler appears to be the leading candidate.
Derek Carr, Las Vegas Raiders: Carr has been a good quarterback for the Raiders ever since they drafted him in the second round in 2014. The arrival of ex-Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and All-Pro wideout Davante Adams should only help him become an even more effective player for the organization. In Week 15, Carr and McDaniels will welcome New England to Allegiant Stadium. The situation from the Patriots’ point of view similar to the one they face versus Arizona and one week later against...
Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals: The Patriots defense will close out its season against Tua Tagovailoa and Josh Allen, and will face another big challenge before that. Joe Burrow, he of the reigning AFC champions, will come to town. The Burrow-Ja’Marr Chase combination is already one of the best quarterback-receiver duos in football, and it will only get better in its second NFL season together. This projects as another enormous challenge for the Patriots.
While there are some favorable matchups, New England’s defense will have its work cut out for it in 2022. While the games against Josh Allen, Aaron Rodgers and Joe Burrow are marquee matchups, those versus second-year passers Justin Fields and Zach Wilson also cannot be underestimated.
The Patriots have a talented quarterback of their own, but their secondary in particular is a work in progress. If it doesn’t figure things out over the next three months, the team could run into some big problems.