Of all the major question marks coming into the Patriots season - and they were many - none was more majorly questionable than the cornerback situation.
Arguably the number one strength of the team as recently as 2020, they completely turned over the position in the last year. In 2019, they had the best defense in the league, by far the lowest passer rating against at just 62.8, and Stephon Gilmore won DPOTY. But in 2021, he sat out the preseason and the first month of the regular season and they traded him a year ago this week. And no matter how excited you are about seeing that 2023 Carolina sixth rounder they got for him (it's what's keeping me alive), it figured to be cold there in Gilly Lock's shadow.
Same with their CB1 over the last two seasons, JC Jackson. Arguably the most highly-regarded defensive free agent on the market last spring, he got money worthy of a shutdown corner, 82.5 million Charger Dollars over five years. And while there was reason to hope Malcolm Butler would be able to fill that JCJ-shaped hole opposite every opponent's top receiver, he left Foxboro before the season began with nothing but an Injury Settlement Discount Card, redeemable at all Patriots Place restaurants and retail outlets.
So it was not unreasonable to worry about how the Pats were going to make this work. Yes, they spent the spring and summer sliding slot corner Jonathan Jones to the outside. Hung onto Jalen Mills, who was one of their better free agent signings last year (he was third on the team in coverage snaps behind only Devin McCourty and Jackson. Plus they drafted Marcus Jones in the third (85th overall) and Jack Jones in the fourth (121st). But given their recent track record of taking corners that high (Joejuan Williams, Duke Dawson and Cyrus Jones), a little unhealthy pessimism was warranted.
But then? 2022 happened. At least the first third of 2022. Ish. And while you might want to argue five games is too small a sample to start crowing about the success of this cornerbacking corps, I'm all about getting in on the ground floor of this crew. Like downloading all of a band's music and buying their shirts before they hit it big. So you can be an insufferable bore about it once they do.
Notwithstanding that Jack Jones made a game-changing interception in each of the last two games, a Pick-6 off Aaron Rodgers and this red zone web gem off Jared Goff:
Besides, I'm not the only one celebrating prematurely. I'm told it happens to a lot of men my age. And younger:
And while some people are starting to pump Sauce Gardner for DROTY consideration:
… I'll just casually drop Jack Jones' passer rating against is 42.6, to Gardner's 62.3. And that Jones has zero touchdowns and two picks, to Gardner's one and one, despite having roughly half the number of coverage snaps. Though that is definitely going to change going forward. It's a question of whether Jones' targets will drop off, as quarterbacks start deciding to look elsewhere for their completions.
As far as the guys Jones and Jones replaced, Gilmore is in Indy, and definitely returning to his 2019 form, with five forced incompletions, three passes broken up, an interception and zero TDs through five games. As far as Jackson? He's off to by far the worst start of his career. And people are noticing what $82.5 million has gotten the Chargers:
Through 120 coverage snaps, Jackson has Pro Football Focus' second lowest grade, at just 32.1. He's broken up one pass while surrendering two touchdowns. His passer rating is third highest among corners with that many passing downs, at 149.0, which is pretty close to perfect. Meaning he's doing only a rounding error away from being statistically equal to playing with 10 defenders and leaving his man uncovered.
Yeah, yeah. It's early. Don't spike the football just yet. There's a long way to go. Don't count your chickens. As Winston Wolf puts it, "Let's not start sucking each other's dicks just yet, gentlemen." But both these Jones have gone above and beyond what anyone could've hoped for six weeks ago. Millrs returned to the lineup in the shutout win over Detroit after missing a week and had his best game of the season. And the other rookie Jones, Marcus, finally saw some action on defense, with 15 snaps in the slot. Meaning my dream of an all-Jones corner trio is beginning to come close to coming true.
Mostly, as we head into the middle third of the season, it's clear that GM Bill gave HC Bill and DC Son of Bill the help they needed. Just like he has so many times before. And the Pats have turned one of the biggest question marks on the team into one of the biggest positives.