Patriots 2021 Draft Preview: Cornerbacks

CJ GUNTHER. Shutterstock Images.

Current roster: Stephon Gilmore, JC Jackson, Jonathan Jones, Jalen Mills, Myles Bryant, Joejuan Williams, Michael Jackson, Dee Virgin, DeAngelo Ross

Positional overview: Aside from quarterback, it's hard to see a position of bigger need in this draft than corner. Not for this season so much, but for 2022 and beyond. At most, Stephon Gilmore should be going into his final year in New England and is the subject of tons of trade speculation. JC Jackson appears to be on the same career path as Malcolm Butler, going from the human equivalent of a winning Powerball ticket found lying in the UDFA street to a top cornerback to a free agent tender to, in all likelihood, leaving next year for huge money next year. So the time to draft their replacements is now. And judging by the amount of meetings they've had with corners (see below), it would appear the Patriots have the same priority. 

Like a lot of positions, corners have gotten tougher to scout as the college game has evolved. Plus the wider hash marks have to be taken into consideration. Most scouts classify college players as either "Boundary corners," meaning the guy who plays the short side of the field, usually lined up on the opponent's No. 1, X-receiver and uses the sideline as an extra defender, the "Field corners," who operate in a much bigger space, have to cover the whole field (including the slot), and "Slot corners," which has become basically a starting position in a world of 11-personnel offenses, just like it has in the pros. So the trick is to translate the zone-heavy schemes of CFB into the NFL game, and find those guys who can handle the challenges of man and press man coverage. Which, while simpler, requires a lot more athleticism.

So cornerback has become one of the most often-drafted positions in football the last few years. Partly to keep pace with the extra number of wide receivers getting drafted, but also because of the bust rate, which is as high as any in the draft. Lord knows the Patriots have had their terrible misses in the early rounds over the last decade-plus. Their draft battlefield is littered with the bones of many failed corners, going back to the days when they were drafting undersized DBs who couldn't keep up with anyone, like Jonathan Wilhite and Terrance Wheatley in 2008. Or more recent 2nd round busts like Duke Dawson and Cyrus Jones. And 10 years ago, when the first pick of Day 2 of the draft produced Ras-I Dowling, who to me still stands alone atop the Pats' Dynasty's Draft Bust Mountain, Ras-I Dowling. (Though N'Keal Harry is close to becoming king of that hill.) So while the Patriots don't have an easily definable "type," I think it's fair to say that early 2000s experiment of smaller, faster corners with quick hip turns - because that's where they saw the game evolving with all the no-contact rules - was an abysmal failure. The Dynasty was rebooted once they got away from small, agile corners and started building around tough, physical and smart CBs like Aqib Talib, Darrelle Revis, Butler, Gilmore and Jackson. Guys who can play any style, from press to mirror-match press man (ie, let the receiver declare his route and then stay with him), or zone read. And to be able to switch to any one of them from one down to the next. That's not easy to find.  Fortunately, this is a strong draft class overall, with as many as possibly five CBs coming off the board Thursday night. Finding the ones who can actually play at the next level is the trick. 

Big Corners Who are Probable 1st Rounders:

Patrick Surtain II, Alabama. 6-foot-2, 208 pounds, 4.46 40-time

Surtain II is one of the several legacies pledging this particular frat, with a dad who was a three time Pro Bowler. He's got the size to match up with the biggest wideouts in the league, and the versatility to play press, mirror-match or zone, as evidenced by the fact there was speculation he would move back to safety at Bama. And while he stayed up on the line, he played a lot of deep third of the field in their Cover-3. He's flat out the best cover corner in this group, with a patient and disciplined style. If there's a knock on him it's that he doesn't have elite speed, and some receivers have run by him. Still, he did establish himself a field-side defender who can lock down the wide side of the secondary. And if there's a knock on his program, it's that Alabama's corners have not done well in the pros (Dee Milliner of the Jets, the aforementioned Cyrus Jones). The conventional wisdom is that Nick Saban is a such a cornerback-centric coach that he maximizes their potential and makes them seem better than they were. Whatever the reason, they tend to come to the NFL struggling to track the football. But regardless, Surtain was the best, most consistent playmaker on the National Champs defense, and will likely be first off the board. 

Compares to the other leading brand: Champ Bailey

Jaycee Horn, South Carolina. 6-1, 205 lbs, 4.46

Another legacy, Joe Horn's kid has all the physical traits. The punch list of size, toughness, speed and athleticism the pros look for. He can move and mirror a route runner's hips and stay with him, plus he's an aggressive tackler. Even playing opposite Israel Mukauamu, who's also a likely pick in the mid-rounds, there was no question Horn was going to draw the WR1 every week. He's probably the most physical corner in the Class of 2021, which is good and bad. A lot of his technique was based on the kind of hand fighting that works great in college, but will turn him into a Brandon Browner-level flag magnet in the pros. So he'll need coaching. It should also be pointed out he only had two interceptions his entire career. And they came in the same game. Still, he looks and plays the part of an NFL cover corner, and hasn't reached his ceiling by any stretch of the imagination. 

Compares to the other leading brand: Jimmy Smith

Caleb Farley, Virginia Tech. 6-2, 195 lbs, 4.50

Farley is a converted high school quarterback, so you can forgive him if his technique isn't the most refined. Plus he's had back surgeries, so he's still a work in progress. Still, he played at an elite level as boundary corner, displaying great instincts and probably the best closing/recovery ability in this group, often playing the ball in flight like a receiver. As you'd figure with someone of his elite traits but lack of experience, he's best suited to play press man, as it's less complex than zone, knowing when to peel off a route runner and leave him for another defender and so on. But there's not much doubt he's an ascending player with the work ethic to get the most out of his potential. 

Compares to the other leading brand: Sean Smith

Big Corner Who is Probably a 1st Rounder the Patriots Met With:

Greg Newsome II, Northwestern. 6-0, 192 lbs, 4.54

Newsome came out of legendary football player nursery IMG Academy as a three-star recruit. He missed a lot of time at Northwestern, including the end of 2019 and six of their nine games last year, including their bowl game. Still, for a guy relatively little experience at the college level, he's got as much refinement to his game as anyone, with experience playing all the zones and all the mans, with more of a fluidity to his game than straight line speed. He's another guy who's going to have to get familiar with the pro rules against unwanted touching. But he plays with poise and confidence and you can see why the Pats used up one of their precious few visits on him. 

Compares to the other leading brand: Dre KirkPatrick

Smallish Corner Who is Probably a 1st Rounder:

Asante Samuel Jr., Florida State. 5-10, 180 lbs, 4.45

This legacy needs no introduction. I'm not big on the whole "sins of the father" guy, so I won't get hung up on how his dad wasn't the most motivated tackler, is the reason why Belichick has told prospects, "We don't have 'cover corners,'" how critical he was of Bill after he left, or that Eli Manning pass that went through his hands back in February of '08. Because I'm not bothered by those things at all. I've gotten over them. You can tell by the way I've barely mentioned them here. Anyhoo … For a 5-10 guy, Samuel Jr. played a lot of boundary at FSU. He's competitive, with 31 tackles, three picks and six passes broken up last year as he made 1st team all conference last year. He's played both press and off coverage, with a nose for attacking the ball aggressively. At the risk of slot shaming him because of his size, he likely projects to slide inside in the pros. Despite his production in school, it's hard to see him consistently defending the Julio Joneses of the world. But he's got the athletic traits to maybe be the guy you assign to a Z-receiver. It's really up to the team willing to take their chances that they can take advantage of his skills and find the right role for him.

Compares to the other leading brand: Stephen Nelson

Elijah Molden, Washington. 5-9 1/2, 192 lbs, 4.50

As the video title suggests, Molden projects as a nickel in the pros, a job description you can now display proudly. It's not like being Assistant to the Regional Defensive Back any more; it's a starting position. He's got the awareness and route recognition skills to play in the high traffic areas, but also enough athletic traits to trust him staying with someone going up the seam and the speed to stay in phase as they stem off their routes. Despite his size, he's got the build to finish off tackles, as evidenced by the 79 he made in 13 games as a junior, which led the team. Practically unheard of for a corner. He also led the Huskies with four INTs, 13 PBUs and tied for the lead with three forced fumbles. Last year wasn't as productive numberswise, but he still made 1st team all conference. And if you care about such things, he was a finalist for the William V. Campbell Trophy, which is the Academic Heisman. 

Compares to the other leading brand: Desmond King

Two Later Round Corners from Oregon the Patriots Talked To:

Deommodore Lenoir, Oregon. 5-11, 205 lbs, 4.52

Lenoir was a situational player as a freshman, then started every game for the Ducks from his sophomore year on, 34 games in a row. He could've come out after being named 2nd team All Pac 12 as a junior, but came back for another year. He opted out of 2020 before opting back in, and finished with six picks and a remarkable 27 passes defended. Despite not cracking 6-feet, he's a physical specimen with a great leap for high-pointing balls and winning 50/50 battles. He's got experience in man and zone. He's a plus run force defender and punishing tackler. He's got the click/close ability to bait a QB into making a throw and then beating the ball to the spot. But by most accounts he still needs to work on not getting baited himself. Too often he'll get looked off or bite on a double move. (Note that I made it through those thoughts without falling back on the obvious crutch of a "master baiter" reference, and I think congratulations are in order.) But for someone looking to develop a high-effort, fiery competitor with tons of experience who can get better over time, he'll be a bargain in the middle rounds. 

Compares to the other leading brand: Tyrann Matthieu

Thomas Graham Jr., Oregon. 5-10, 192 lbs, 4.50

Pardon the disparity between the measurables I posted and the video's thumbnail, but I go by the official NFL numbers. Try not to let the fact Thomas is listed as bigger on YouTube destroy your faith in the integrity of fan made highlight videos. That said, Thomas is an intriguing case. A starter as a true freshman, he made 39 consecutive starts before he opted out last year. Still he had enough accomplishments on his LinkedIn profile to get a Senior Bowl invite, thanks to an FBS-leading 40 passes defended in 2019, including eight interceptions. A boundary corner who's effective at playing off coverage and displays a nose for identifying underneath and screens and blowing them up. Like Lenoir, he's a sure tackler who needs to improve at staying in phase with breaking routes. But he's likely to fit in well with someone's zone scheme as weekend draft selection. 

Compares to the other leading brand: Damon Arnette

Other Corners the Patriots Talked To:

Darren Hall, San Diego State. 5-11, 188 lbs, 4.50

While listed as a corner, Hall projects as one of those positionless secondary players at the next level, since he started out as a safety and has started at every spot over his three years as a starter. He's best at playing off-man or zone, which gives him the best chance to use his route-recognition instincts as they develop. He was productive throughout, with a 25 passes defended, including an FBS high 16 in 2019. He's vulnerable to underneath routes, as he allows to big a cushion at times. But he's a plus run defender who can be a quality depth guy from Day 1 as he develops. 

Compares to the other leading brand: Salvion Smith

Avery Williams, Boise State. 5-8, 175 lbs, 4.48

Williams is far from an elite prospect, but he just strikes me as the kind of player that checks a lot of boxes in Bill Belichick's soft, gooey, caramel-filled special teams coach's heart. Despite his size, this converted high school running back was 44-game starter over his career. He made 1st team All MWC as a kick returner in 2019 and '20, and as a corner in '20 as well. And he was named captain in his senior year. I can't imagine, in my wildest peyote-fueled sweat lodge fever dream, that Belichick would line him up on the outside and have him defend a guy he's giving (on average) five to six inches to. But as a versatile special teamer/subpackage defender and possible part time offensive with a late round pick? Absolutely. 

Compares to the other leading brand: Amik Robertson

The Perfect Patriot: They couldn't go wrong with any of those top three. (So says the guy who predicted they'd take Duke Dawson and Joejuan Williams, and where did that get me?) But I think their interest in Greg Newsome II is legitimate. He's someone with all the tools that they can develop for a year and groom him to be a starter in 2022.

Whom the Patriots will take: Newsome. Which is to say, provided he drops enough for them to grab him at 46 or somewhere close to it. Failing that, if Newsome is out of their reach, I love Deommodore Lenoir as a later round fall back. And not just because I look forward to calling him Dumbledore for the next four or so years. But I won't lie and say that's not part of the appeal. Also, look for a last round flyer on Avery Williams. Or a camp invite if he falls through the cracks. But Newsome is the pick.

Earlier Previews:

Quarterbacks

Wide receivers

Edge

Linebackers

Safeties