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Patriots training camp preview: Who will emerge as the new No. 1 cornerback?

Related: Patriots training camp preview: How will the new-look linebacker group perform?

NFL: JUN 08 New England Patriots Minicamp Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The New England Patriots’ 2022 training camp is right around the corner. On Wednesday, the team will reconvene at Gillette Stadium to kick off its next level of preparation for the upcoming season — and all that goes with it: full-contact practices, camp competitions, joint sessions, you name it.

Leading up to this year’s camp, we will take a look at all position groups on New England’s roster to give you some idea about the key actors, battles and storylines at each of them. Today, we will continue at cornerback.

Position group

Led by the likes of Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson, the Patriots fielded one of the strongest cornerback groups in the league the last few years. With Gilmore traded last October and Jackson leaving in free agency five months later, however, the position is looking drastically different nowadays.

Outside cornerbacks

Slot cornerbacks

The labels used here are not exclusive; the Patriots like their players to be able to line up all over the formation to create a maximum amount of flexibility both in terms of scheme and personnel. That said, we can see that the group as a whole has some major question marks at the outside cornerback spots — and some in the slot as well.

Outside, Jalen Mills appears to be locked into one starting spot. The other one previously occupied by J.C. Jackson, however, is up for grabs in what will be one of the most interesting camp competitions of the summer. There are no clear favorites, even though both Malcolm Butler (experience) and rookie Jack Jones (promising minicamp) appear to be among the frontrunners at the moment.

Inside, meanwhile, Jonathan Jones is the top option on paper. However, the veteran was placed on the physically unable to perform list last week after missing most of 2021 due to a shoulder injury. When he was out last year, Myles Bryant took the slot job. Now, the third-year man himself will have to compete against third-round rookie Marcus Jones.

Camp competitions

Malcolm Butler vs. Jack Jones vs. Terrance Mitchell vs. Joejuan Williams vs. Shaun Wade: That’s right, we have a good old free-for-all at the second outside cornerback spot opposite projected starter Jalen Mills. Butler, Jones, Mitchell, Williams and Wade will all be given a chance to prove themselves as worthy of that role this summer. Butler should be seen as the favorite to win the competition at the moment, but Mitchell offers plenty of starting experience as well. Of course, Jones is a lock to make the team based on his fourth-round draft status and has had some positive moments during the spring.

Jonathan Jones vs. Marcus Jones vs. Myles Bryant: Jonathan Jones carries a significant cap hit this season, is coming off a season-ending injury, and is entering the final year of his contract — possibly a perfect storm for third-round rookie Marcus Jones to take over sooner rather than later. That said, the veteran remaining on the roster still seems like the most realistic outcome. If the youngster can give him a run for his money, however, he might force the Patriots to make some interesting decisions in the short and long term.

Myles Bryant vs. Terrance Mitchell vs. Joejuan Williams vs. Shaun Wade: At this point in time six members of the Patriots’ cornerback group can be considered as relatively safe bets to make the team: Jalen Mills, Malcolm Butler, Jonathan Jones, Marcus Jones, Jack Jones and special teams ace Justin Bethel. That leaves several players to compete not just for the starting spot on the outside but those on the backend of the roster as well. Realistically, no more than two of the four men listed here will be able to make the cut — if even that.

Stories to watch

Who will emerge as CB1? Aqib Talib. Darrelle Revis. First-tenure Malcolm Butler. Stephon Gilmore. J.C. Jackson. It’s been a long time since the Patriots entered training camp without a clear-cut number one cornerback on their roster. At the moment, however, there is none to be found. Jalen Mills is virtually guaranteed a starting spot but does that make him CB1 by default? How about Butler et al on the other side; will one of those guys emerge? Will New England even have a clear-cut number one? Questions upon questions.

Will Jack Jones carry his offseason momentum in camp? Jones was one of the most active rookie performers during mandatory minicamp in June, earning regular reps with the starter-level defense. The fourth-round pick held his own, which might either be a sign of things to come or a reflection of the non-competitive nature of offseason drills. Training camp will give us an answer to this question and a preview of Jones’ eventual spot on the depth chart.

Does Joejuan Williams have a future in New England? The former second-round draft pick served as outside cornerback No. 3 last offseason but disappointed whenever called upon to play a role going beyond reserve level. The writing appears to be on the wall for Williams, now it is on him to turn his career around and maybe sneak his way onto the roster yet again. Will it be easy? No. Will it be possible? Given the uncertainty on the outside, yes.