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Patriots 2022 Draft Preview: Cornerbacks

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Current roster: Malcolm Butler, Jonathan Jones, Jalen Mills, Joejuan Williams, Myles Bryant, Terrance Mitchell, Shaun Wade

Positional overview: I've spent a disproportionate, unhealthy, and ultimately pointless amount of time in my life arguing with people who insist Bill Belichick hasn't been able to draft and develop wide receivers. I have these wasted arguments to point out he has never really put much draft capital into those selections (with the notable exception of N'Keal Harry). And I'll add now that if you really want to find a position where he has put in the effort and gotten minimal ROA, it's right here. In the position we're looking at today. 

All you had to do was half pay attention to the Wild Card loss in Buffalo to see that Williams (2019 Round 2) is the latest swing and a miss. And he's not been a near miss, any more than he nearly missed catching Stefon Diggs on that Go route touchdown. A part time player throughout his career, Williams either turns his career around immediately or he goes into the junk drawer with earlier failed second rounders like Duke Dawson, Cyrus Jones, and the gold standard in the category, Ras-IR Dowling. 

To be fair, it's a position with a high bust rate around the league as it is. Like their offensive counterparts these guys cover, it's extremely tough to project them from the college game into the pros. And as wideouts evolve and rules make it harder to play something resembling defense, the type teams look for changes every few years. Those of us who were around then are still scarred by the 2008 Pats drafting Jonathan Wilhite and Terrance Wheatley, one after the other. They shared in common several traits. Chiefly that they were small and agile, with the ability to make a baseball turn to flip their hips and stay with receivers as contact was being phased out of the game. But mostly they shared a total inability to cover a single living soul. It turned out the game wasn't evolving in that direction at all. And the premium became on big, strong, physical press corners like Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman who challenged guys to get off the line and into their routes. That's a miscalculation Belichick would adjust to, and start building his defenses around the likes of Aqib Talib, Revis, Brandon Browner and Stephon Gilmore. 

On this roster, Mills was a very solid addition, although his major strength is his versatility. Butler is very much welcome back after having the second best season of his career in 2020 before sitting out last year for personal reasons. Jones is a more-than-adequate slot corner. Everyone else is a crapshoot, including Wade who was picked up via trade after the draft and was barely seen thereafter. All of this adds up to one thing: Cornerback is a top priority in this draft. If not the priority. For this year, and all the years to come. The good news is, that if you're ever going to be in the market for the CB1 of your forseeable future? Well then brother, have you come to the right draft. 

The Mortal Lock Top Half of Round 1 Picks:

Sauce Gardner, Cincinnati. 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, 4.41 40-yard dash

The presumptive Alpha Male in this herd, Ahmad is, despite the giant pendant spelling out his nickname that we wears swinging from a battleship anchor chain around his neck, is a quiet, humble, tone-setter who embodies the prototype of a big, tall, rangy, long-limbed, athletic corner who excels at all aspects of the game. He'll stick his nose in against the run game, but is still the best cover corner in his class. He can play mirror match coverage (where you don't put your hands on a receiver), or press man (where you damned well better, mister) to erase whomever he's assigned to. Despite being just 160 lbs as a recruit, he built himself up to where now he'll corral receivers at the LOS, and when they get off the blocks, take Pythagorean angles and his length to disrupt the short- and intermediate routes, thereby basically erasing them. As demonstrated by the fact that in over 1,000 career snaps, he has yet to give up a single touchdown. Not the unanimous No. 1 CB pick, but don't bet against him falling out of the Top 12.

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Richard Sherman

Derek Stingley, Jr., LSU. 6-0, 190 lbs, 4.35

Stingley has plenty of pundits still putting him in their No. 1 spot. And if his last couple of seasons held a flickering candle to his freshman year in 2019, they all would. He was projected at a Top 3 overall pick after that one. When healthy, this converted wide receiver has the best ball skills in his class, often running routes better than the poor, hapless SOBs he's assigned to. He allowed a catch rate of only 41.1% in his career. But he's only played 10 games in the two seasons since. And while I might be the only one on the planet still quoting Game of Thrones, as Ned Stark put it, "Everything before 'but' is bullshit." Players who missed a ton of time in school rarely come to the NFL to get less injured. And Stingley's 2021 ended with a Lisfranc injury. So drafting him comes with the sort of risk that comes with buying your perfect house. Except it's in a flood plain. And there was a mass murder there. If it passes inspection, you can feel really good about it. But you won't know if you'll soon be getting helicoptered off the roof by FEMA or calling an exorcist with "GET OUT" oozing through the wallpaper in blood. He has the biggest upside, but with the greatest risk. You pays your money; you takes your chances.

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Stephon Gilmore

A Dynamic Duo of Huskies:

Trent McDuffie, Washington. 5-11, 193 lbs, 4.44

Simply put, McDuffie is the T-Rex of this class. For his dominance, his place atop the food chain, his speed, his large brain, and for his short arms, which science is struggling to explain. His upper appendages measure at less than 30 inches, which is practically unheard of at the position. But his high football IQ has more than made up for his sleeve length. He allowed only 16 catches on 36 targets for 111 yards with zero TDs and five PBUs. In off/bail coverage - which is a staple of Washington's system -  he shows great awareness of the field and the situation, so you rarely see him giving too soft a cushion and surrendering a 1st down or playing too aggressively and getting burned. Unlike a lot of corners, he takes pride in playing zone. Outside the numbers, he's super aggressive and skilled at using the sideline as an extra defender. And he's versatile enough to play CB2 in base, the slot, or as your nickel. Plus he's asked to take snaps at safety, so he can get in the alley, drive downhill and hit people in the run game. And a lot of that versatility comes from his notable film room addiction, which no NFL team will ask him to seek treatment for. You can question whether his tiny forearms will cost him catches at the next level, but there's no denying his head for the game and his very high floor. 

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Tre'Davious White

Kyler Gordon, Washington. 6-0, 194 lbs, 4.52

McDuffie's counterpart was hurt so he didn't run like his usual self at the Combine. But when at full health, he has the speed to run with most of the top greyhounds in the game. Like Stingley, he's a converted wideout, with the agility to flip his hips and stay with them deep, and the ball skills to disrupt passing lanes. He's also shown the short area twitchiness to break up passes in the short- and intermediate areas. He's an aggressive bump and run defender who's not dependent on any one particular scheme. The risk with Gordon is that he was only a one-year starter in Washington thanks to their deep corner depth (both of 2020's starters were drafted), so his 46 tackles, seven PBUs and two interceptions were all career highs. He studied under legendary Huskies defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake, and probably would've stuck around to increase his draft stock for next year, but Lake was fired so he declared. As a result, he's likely to drop to the third or fourth round, but projects to be someone's starter given time and coaching.

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Budda Baker

The Highest Ranked Corner the Patriots Met With:

Andrew Booth, Jr., Clemson. 6-0, 194 lbs, 4.45

The Pats used one of their Top 30 meetings to sit down with Booth, and you can see that he checks a lot of obvious boxes for them. As Belichick told Devin McCourty during the pre-draft process, "We don't have 'cover corners.'" Meaning in NE, you're expected to make tackles. And Booth is the best run support CB in his class, if maybe sometimes being a bit too urgent to fly into a ballcarrier instead of squaring and wrapping him up. Still, he's as aggressive in the run game and physical in coverage as anyone on this list. He probably played more zone than anyone as well, showing a consistently good understanding of route concepts, reading receiver splits, anticipating routes, and employing sound eye discipline to keep himself from falling for QB's magician's tricks. So while he'll need to clean up some techniques and learn patience, he's got a high ceiling. And the Patriots have gone with more zone over the past couple of seasons than we've seen in years. If that trend continues, Booth is a great fit. 

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Kyle Fuller

Amassed Along the Border Between Round 1 and Round 2:

Kaiir Elam, Florida. 6-2, 191 lbs, 4.39

If you'll forgive me the tragic geopolitical metaphor, Elam has been pushed back from the Top 10 to the second round, but could make an incursion into Thursday night if the board falls his way. If he does, it'll be on the basis of his rare size/speed combo, his abilities as a true press-man defender who, with safety help, can get physical to smother a receiver in the flat/curl areas, like he did to Jameson Williams of Alabama. He's that guy who wants the challenge of being left alone against an opponents top target, and the mental toughness to back it up. One trait that limits him somewhat is his long lower half, which makes it a little hard for him to make a fluid hip turn. Kind of in that way that tall guys always get voted out right after the olds on Dancing With the Stars: There's just a lot of long body parts to account for. Which might help explain the seven penalty flags he drew. But once he does make that flip, he can run with all of them. So he'd benefit from experience and learning to anticipate routes better. (Who wouldn't, I guess?) The bottom line is that in the hyper-competitive SEC, taking on the WR1 week after week, he was targeted just 36 times, and only gave up 19 receptions for 191 yards. So he'd be an iron clad lock in the first round most any other year. This year, it's TBD.

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Jaylen Johnson

Roger McCreary, Auburn. 5-11, 190 lbs, 4.50

Like McDuffie, McCreary is yet another guy with sub-30" arms. And like Elam, he also happens to be yet another guy who went up against the best the SEC could throw at him, but  put up even better numbers. He was targeted 75 times, while surrendering just 34 receptions. More impressive still was his Pete Davidson-like number of breakups, with 14. His tape against the best programs is his best, including the Penn State game and taking on both Williams and John Metchie (though not at the same time) against Bama. He's the best read-and-react corner in the group, which along with his smooth, fluid movement makes up for his Muppet arms. And you might not want to be overheard making with the tiny arms wisecrackery around this guy, due to the anger he already plays with. In 2020, seven of his 45 tackles were for a loss. Then, after not getting picked for any postseason awards he upped his tackles to 49, with two INTs and a fumble recovery. Most Big Boards have him going near the top of the 2nd, but he could easily benefit from a run on corners and get to hug Roger Goodell Thursday night.

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Joe Haden

Experienced Man Available at Reasonable Rates:

Martin Emerson, Mississippi State. 6-2, 201 lbs, 4.53

Emerson could have as much playing time as any corner in his class, starting all 11 games as a sophomore, then in 2020 racking up 72 tackles with an SEC-best 11 PBUs. Those numbers plummeted last year to 49 and three in 12 games, through the fault of the quarterbacks who stopped looking to his side. As a result, he only gave up one catch of 25+ yards all year. He's competitive in press-man, but adept at playing off-zone, timing the release of the ball to plant and drive forward to disrupt the catch at the mesh point. He's a willing tackler with the size to take on and shed blockers and get to the ballcarrier and finish him off. (In the football sense; not in the way you heard it, weirdo.) He tends to get a bit too grabby on contested balls. But could easily fit someone's scheme as a big slot, nickel, or even hybrid safety in an increasingly positionless world. 

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Carlton Davis

Big Man on Small Campus:

Tariq Woolen, UTSA. 6-4, 205 lbs, 4.26

Compares to the Other Leading Brand:

Patriots Met With:

Marcus Jones, Houston. 5-8, 174 lbs, 4.45

Jones has been as high as second rounder on most of the big boards to a borderline Top 100 at this point in the process, due mainly to combo platter of skills. He won the Paul Hornung Award given to the most versatile player in the nation, and for good reason. He's as good a playmaker as there is in this class. In his career he has 10 returns for touchdowns: One on an interception, six on kickoffs and three on punts. As a corner, he uses his athleticism and ballhawking instincts to be an effective zone corner, with five interceptions and 12 PBUs. He'll definitely find a spot on a team that places a premium on return men, while providing depth in the secondary as he develops into a starting slot corner. 

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Amik Robinson

Two More the Patriots Met With. From Arizona State, No Less:

Chase Lucas, Arizona State. 5-11, 180 lbs, 4.48

We can all be forgiven if we're a little skittish about going back to the Sun Devils for another draft prospect. But at the same time, can't let the shadow of N'Keal Harry haunt us forever. Lucas was a team captain at ASU and the leader of the secondary. A senior with a ton of experience, he's an effective off-zone defender, though a little thin for press coverage. But he's got the frame to add some bulk and develop in a year or two, which he'll have to as he'll be a late round pick at best. 

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Rashard Robinson

Jack Jones, Arizona State. 5-11, 171 lbs, 4.51

Jones was recruited to USC where he led the team with four interceptions in 14 starts as a sophomore. But as they say on every 30 for 30, "Off the field, there were signs of trouble …" He was declared academically ineligible (which will happen as USC when your mom isn't a sitcom star) and then arrested on misdemeanor charges of breaking and entering into a restaurant after hours. After a season at a Juco, he transferred to ASU and promptly got suspended for all but one game for always vaguely ominous, "violating team rules." In spite of all that, his skill sets explains why he was so heavily recruited and got a second and a third chance. He's a fluid mover, with quick feet to change direction and stick with receivers. Given the fact he's a senior, it's no surprise he's experienced, with some time spent on offense, so his play recognition skills are good. His body type limits him as much as his shady personal history. But there's enough talent there that with some chiseling and polishing, the diamond within might be found under all that rock.

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Janoris Jenkins

Sleeper You Can't Sleep On:

Josh Jobe, Alabama. 6-0, 182 lbs, 4.55

I'll concede that the history of cornerbacks making the jump from Alabama to the NFL is, to be kind, spotty. The Patriots of course got burned by Cyrus Jones. Dee Milliner had some of the most glowing draft profiles I've ever seen, and yet his own limitations or just the Mark of Shame that is being drafted by the Jets - or both - were his undoing. But still, there's no overlooking a guy who has played for Nick Saban. Especially one who'll likely still be available late in the third and even the fourth round. He's just an average athlete by NFL standards, but has size and the power to squeeze receivers along the boundary. And he plays physical along the line of scrimmage, knocking receivers off their routes and as a run force defender. He's got good instincts for getting his head around on deep shots and seam routes. After a disappointing senior year, he's dropped on a lot of scouts boards, and there's lot of talk he might benefit from a switch to free safety. 

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Tre Flowers

The Perfect Patriot: Gardner. I say him first, just because he's the perfect fit pretty much anywhere. But that's like saying Elizabeth Hurley is the perfect woman for me. Neither will happen. Realistically, among the corners with a reasonable chance of still being within the Pats reach at 21, the Perfect Patriot is McDuffie. He's got the talent. The game film. The experience against top competition. The coaching. The drive and work ethic. I'd add that his intangibles are off the charts, but since there's no way to chart intangibles because they are intangible, I'll just say he's the kind of player they love to build a roster around. A hard studier who won't be outworked by anyone, not even the veteran leaders. And since history has shown they do not have a definitive "type" at the corner position, they can overlook his arm limitations in favor of the actual plays that he actually makes. 

Whom the Patriots Will Select: McDuffie. He's appeared on a lot of mock drafts as the Patriots best option in Round 1. Though I'll caution you that more and more of the recent mocks have him going to Philly in the mid-teens. If it should happen that he's out of their reach, I see them loving Booth as a consolation prize. Either one would come in and have every opportunity to be a Week 1 starter opposite Butler. McDuffie is the first choice, Booth is second. Make it so. 

Earlier Previews:

Slot receivers

Wide receivers