Coming off a rather disappointing 8-9 season, the New England Patriots have plenty of potential for improvement. They already addressed some areas of need so far this offseason, but will now look to add long-term stability and additional playmaking ability through the NFL Draft. With 11 selections in hand, Bill Belichick and company are in a good position to do just that.
How they will ultimately use those picks remains to be seen. However, there are several players who would fit what they are looking for both at positions of need and at other spots all over the roster.
In our Patriots Draft Targets series, we will be taking a close look at some prospects we believe might be falling into just that “fit” category. Today, let’s assess a projected first-round cornerback.
Name: Devon Witherspoon
Position: Outside cornerback
Opening day age: 22
Size: 5’11 1/2”, 181 lbs, 73 5/8” wingspan, 31 1/4” arm length, 8 7/8” hand size
Workout numbers: N/A
After not playing football until his junior year of high school, Witherspoon received limited interest heading toward the college level. He originally committed to Hutchinson Community College before receiving offers from higher-profile schools such as Massachusetts, Appalachian State, Troy, and Temple. Eventually, however, he ended up in Illinois where he developed into one of the nation’s best cornerbacks.
In four seasons with the Fighting Illini, he appeared in 42 games with 32 starts. He played some solid football throughout his college career, but saved his best for last: as a senior in 2022, per Pro Football Focus, Witherspoon allowed a completion rate of just 34.9 percent (22 of 63) while surrendering just 206 yards an no touchdowns with three interceptions. As a result of his impressive play, he received numerous accolades ranging from consensus All-American honors to becoming the first Thorpe Award finalist in school history.
Expected round: 1st (Top 20)
Strengths: Talk about a physical player. Witherspoon is not afraid of getting physical with receivers at the line of scrimmage, allowing him to disrupt the timing early and throughout their patterns. He also is a stout tackler who has never shied away from initiating contact or fighting through blocks in the running game. He also has some impressive instincts and read-and-react skills: Witherspoon can diagnose route combinations quickly and sniff out plays before they have the chance of succeeding.
He has the burst and swift feet to close in on ball-carriers or targets in the passing game, while his style of play combined with experience in man coverage should make for a relatively easy transition to the next level; teams will likely not be afraid of giving him looks in press-man assignments. He might not be the biggest player, but he makes up for it with effort as well as natural physicality and a knack for locating and making plays on the ball. He has serious starter-level potential from Day 1.
Quarterbacks targeted Devon Witherspoon 15 times on passes of 20 or more air yards last season. This was a Very Bad Idea, as Witherspoon allowed ONE CATCH for 39 yards, no TD, and two INT. One of many reasons he's my CB1. The footwork for a guy his size is just special. pic.twitter.com/dAOid5F84o— Doug Farrar ✍ (@NFL_DougFarrar) March 31, 2023
Weaknesses: While he was able to win his matchups against Big Ten competition, Witherspoon’s size might be a question for some teams. At just under 6-foot-0 and weighing in at only 181 pounds at the Scouting Combine, bigger, more physical perimeter receivers in the NFL might pose a problem for him. Additionally, his aggressiveness might become an issue — both with NFL referees and with teams trying to take advantage of it by running hard-cut patterns against him.
What would be his role in 2023? As noted above, Witherspoon is a plug-and-play prospect. In New England, he would align on the outside and possibly serve as either a starter or a top rotational option as early as Year 1. Helping him is the fact that he has the physicality and instincts to hold his own in man looks, and the reactionary skills to succeed in zone. While likely not a true CB1 yet as a rookie, he should be able to earn regular playing time right away. In addition, Witherspoon should be able to contribute on kickoff and punt coverage.
What is his growth potential? Witherspoon displayed some impressive growth since his introduction to the game of football. Within six seasons, he went from not playing at all to a first-round draft prospect. Him continuing on this impressive a trajectory should not be expected, but he does have room to get better and realize his Pro Bowl potential. How? By gaining experience against pro-level competition, improving his awareness and aggressiveness, and working on his play strength. By Year 2, he could already be a starter and potential No. 1 at the cornerback position — one that rarely leaves the field.
Does he have positional versatility? Of his 738 defensive snaps in 2022, a vast majority came as an outside cornerback: he aligned on the perimeter 616 times for a rate of 83.5 percent. The rest of his reps were split between the slot (107; 14.5%), box (11; 1.5%) and line of scrimmage (4; 0.5%). But while Illinois did not move him all over the formation, his skillset might allow him to play a more versatile role in the NFL. Ideally, though, he would primarily play wide and only change positions if following an opponent in man-match assignments.
What adding him would mean for the depth chart: Based on his projected draft status, Witherspoon would be a lock to make the Patriots’ roster. Adding him to the equation, especially as a perimeter option, would therefore have a trickle-down effect on the rest of the cornerback group: while Jack Jones (outside) and Marcus Jones (slot) would not be impacted too much, bringing the Illinois product in would free up Jonathan Jones to move back into the slot or a safety role; Jalen Mills also might be in a position to change from the outside to safety; by extension, Myles Bryant’s standing on the team might also change.
Why the Patriots make sense as a landing spot: Witherspoon being a fit for the Patriots goes beyond the team’s need at cornerback. He also would be a tremendous addition to their defense due to his experience playing man coverage, and solid foundation as a tackler and in run support. Add a dash of special teams and a connection to New England through his Illinois head coach (former Patriots assistant Bret Bielema) and you see why the organization investing in him would not come as too big a surprise.
Patriots contact: N/A
Verdict: Witherspoon would be a tremendous fit in New England, but there are some questions. Will he be available at No. 14, or come off the board earlier than that? Do the Patriots see cornerback as a position worth targeting in Round 1 relative to others? Is his lack of size a concern? Is he seen as a perimeter option or more of a slot/nickel player? If those do get answered in a positive way, however, the team bringing Witherspoon in in the first round would make plenty of sense and the team’s defense better in 2023 and beyond.
Do you think Witherspoon would be a good fit for the Patriots? Please scroll down to the comments to discuss!