On paper, the New England Patriots had one of the deepest cornerback rooms in the NFL heading into the 2021 season. However, over the next few months they moved on from former NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore and his replacement as CB1, J.C. Jackson.
Gilmore was traded early in the 2021 season, with Jackson leaving in free agency just a few months later. In order to help replace the two Pro Bowlers, the team invested in some draft picks, free agents, and eventually moved veteran Jonathan Jones from the slot to the boundary. While the group as a whole lacked the same star power it had with Gilmore and Jackson in the lineup in 2022, it generally fared well.
That said, as a look at the current depth chart shows there is room for improvement:
- Jalen Mills: 28 | Signed through 2024
- Jack Jones: 25 | Signed through 2025
- Marcus Jones: 24 | Signed through 2025
- Shaun Wade: 24 | Signed through 2024
- Quandre Mosely: 23 | Signed through 2023
- Rodney Randle: 26 | Signed through 2023
Similar to the linebacker position, a cut can be made halfway through the cornerback roster as well. The top three are roster players, with the others replacement-level or practice squad options.
As for the roster guys, there are some questions. Jalen Mills struggled with injuries in 2022, and is more of a CB2 than a guy capable of locking down star wideouts on a snap-by-snap basis. Jack Jones showed promise as a rookie last year, but ended the season suspended due to apparent tardiness in his recovery from a knee injury. Fellow rookie Marcus Jones, meanwhile, is built more like a slot guy but was used extensively on the outside.
The other two cornerbacks heavily featured in the rotation last year, meanwhile, are all headed for free agency:
- CB Myles Bryant (RFA): Free agency profile
- CB Jonathan Jones (UFA): Free agency profile
- CB Joejuan Williams (UFA): Free agency profile
Jonathan Jones and Myles Bryant filled starter-level roles in the New England secondary last year, but their future is uncertain due to their free agency status. Former second-round draft pick Joejuan Williams, meanwhile, appears to be headed out the door.
This leaves the team with some potential to upgrade the position. If it looks at free agency, the following targets make some sense.
James Bradberry (UFA): Bradberry is arguably the top cornerback available on the open market this year. The 29-year-old combines size and playmaking ability, and has experience filling that No. 1 role for the NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles last season. He allowed a sub-50-percent completion rate when targeted and picked off four passes.
Ronald Darby (SFA): The former second-round pick played some good football for the Denver Broncos the last two seasons, but his contract and injury status — he tore his ACL last October — led to the team releasing him. His health will obviously be key to his free agency outlook, but if he can regain his pre-injury form he could be a solid addition as a perimeter cornerback.
Cameron Dantzler (SFA): Dantzler was a third-round draft pick in 2020, but his time in Minnesota was inconsistent. A regime change and injuries completely derailed his career with the team last season, and prompted his release last week. His age (24) and size (6’2, 195 lbs) paired with his pre-draft promise, makes for an interesting target — one that also would not be counted in the compensatory draft picks list.
Jamel Dean (UFA): A third-round pick in 2019, Dean played some solid football for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers the last four seasons. He gave up five touchdowns in 2022 versus two interceptions, but his potential as a possible CB1 is apparent: he combines the size, instincts and ball skills to develop from a good to a very good defensive back in the right environment.
Will Harris (UFA): Harris looked good as a slot cornerback for the Detroit Lions last year, but his first four years in the league as a whole have been marred by inconsistency. Nonetheless, he brings good size and a versatile skillset to the table.
Emmanuel Moseley (UFA): A former undrafted free agent, Mosely developed into a very solid cornerback for San Francisco. He is coming off a season-ending ACL tear, but should be ready to go by training camp and might therefore be an attractive option for teams looking for starting-caliber talent on the perimeter.
Byron Murphy Jr. (UFA): As one of the better players available, the former second-round draft pick could be commanding top dollar on the open market. It is not hard to see why: the 25-year-old offers plenty of experience and is a proven starting outside cornerback. His medicals are a question mark after a back injury ended his 2022 season, but he has all the makings of a difference-maker.
Sean Murphy-Bunting (UFA): Another member of Tampa Bay’s secondary, Murphy-Bunting is coming off a challenging season. He was used in more of a rotational capacity in the secondary and missed time due to a quad injury. However, he offers a versatile skillset and despite being only 25 has played a lot of football in his career.
Isaiah Oliver (UFA): Oliver started the 2022 season on the sidelines, but was very good after his return. Playing primarily in the slot, the former second-round draft pick did allow two thirds of passes thrown his way to be completed but he did not give up any touchdowns and generally was competitive. He would bring plenty of experience and a proven track record as a nickel defender at a relatively low cost.
Marcus Peters (UFA): The Patriots like to pick up players who performed well against them, and Peters did just that when his Baltimore Ravens visited Gillette Stadium last September: he had an interception, forced fumble and fumble recovery that day. That game alone will not prompt New England to bring him aboard; his size, experience, and abilities on the outside might, though.
Patrick Peterson (UFA): Peterson will turn 33 in July, but make no mistake: the Vikings cornerback can still perform at a level worthy of a starting spot — one he would probably get if signed by the Patriots. In 2022, the veteran defender picked off five passes and allowed 48 completions on 80 targets.
Duke Shelley (UFA): The third Vikings cornerback on that list, Shelley also played some competitive football last year. In fact, the former practice squad pickup via Chicago earned a starting spot down the stretch and proved himself a competitive player despite measuring in at only 5-foot-9, 176 pounds.
Cameron Sutton (UFA): Coming off a strong run as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ No. 1 cornerback, the 28-year-old is likely in line for a big payday. He might be worth an investment, though, for a team looking to find starter-level play on the outside: he has a lot of experience — he entered the NFL back in 2017 — and is still in his prime.
Rock Ya-Sin (UFA): A trade acquisition by the Groh/McDaniels-led Las Vegas Raiders last year, the former second-round draft pick is also one of the better options available at cornerback this year. He did end 2022 with a knee injury, but when he was on the field played some good football; Ya-Sin gave up receptions on 58.5 percent of the passes thrown his way.
The free agent cornerback group is an interesting one. Much like the wide receiver position, it features no real blue-chip talent — a fact that might inflate the value of the top options available. However, with a draft that is better at CB than WR, for comparison, teams might be reluctant to hand out sizable contracts if they could get similar and cheaper rookie talent.
So, where does that leave the Patriots? Re-signing Jonathan Jones would likely be a priority, and if they want to make a splash on the market there are only a handful of players worth targeting. Jamel Dean, Byron Murphy and Rock Ya-Sin appear to be near the top of that list.