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Patriots 2023 Draft Preview: Cornerbacks

Boston Globe. Getty Images.

Current roster: Jonathan Jones, Jack Jones, Marcus Jones, Myles Bryant, Shawn Wade, Jalen Mills

Positional overview: The Patriots had a Laurentian Abyss (the underwater trench where Jack Ryan faked the Red October going down)-sized hole in their secondary last year after losing JC Jackson and Stephon Gilmore. And you have to feel good about how well they managed to fill it with the additions of Jack Jones (3rd round) and Marcus Jones (4th). Each commanded more playing time as the season went on. Each ended up with over 260 coverage snaps. Jack Jones was Top 10 in the league in passer rating when targeted, with a 50% completion % against, two interceptions and four passes broken up in 40 targets. And both simply looked like they have the athleticism and mental makeup to be trusted against NFL competition. Jonathan Jones (I wish I could come up with abbreviations for all these guys) is now the unquestioned CB1 Alpha in this group after spending his early seasons as the full time slot corner, and he's been resigned. Since he moved outside, the slot position went to Myles Bryant, with 481 of his 689 snaps on the inside. And it's not unfair to say he was the weakest link in the secondary. His passer rating was 102.3, by far the highest among defensive backs on the team and 18th worst among corners. If there's a drain that needs to be plugged, that is it. 

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Bill Belichick's type at this position has evolved over the years. For a while he gravitated toward smaller, lighter, more agile corners, with quick hip-turns to mirror receivers in a league where the physical bump-and-run coverage of the 2001-04 teams was facing a crackdown from Roger Goodell's stripe-shirted goons. And the results were ugly. Jonathan Wilhite. Terrance Wheatley. Darius Butler. All flamed out in short order, and were replaced by bigger, stronger corners like Aqib Talib, Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, and Gilmore. But last year's draft signaled another U-turn, with both rookie Joneses playing at 175 pounds; Jack at 5-foot-11 and Marcus just 5-8. Reflecting the need to be able to match up against the smaller, impossibly fast Tyreek Hill Class receivers. Think the way the US Navy put an 18-cylinder engine in the Hellcat to give it more speed and maneuverability than the Japanese Zero, and that design change won the War in the Pacific.  

Last week Devin McCourty discussed what he thinks the Patriots look for in their corners. And it all came down to, "If I had to pick the top three things, lateral quickness, smarts along with technique and aggressiveness, and to be willing to tackle." That last part shouldn't be overlooked. As he's told prospects before, "We don't have 'cover corners' here." Which is why he let Asante Samuel walk. Neither of the rookie Joneses are going to be mistaken for Mel Blount when they're flying into a ballcarrier. But they're willing to stick their noses in and disrupt a play as well as basic physics will allow. 

I think overall they're in the market for a corner, particularly a slot corner, as that is now a full time job in this league. I don't think it's the major priority other positions are, thanks to the home run they hit at last year's draft. So they'll be shopping for the value picks.

The Consensus Round 1 Corners:

Christian Gonzalez, Oregon. 6-foot-1, 197 pounds, 4.38 40 time

Simply put, the best coverage defensive back of the 2023 draft. With the size, speed, agility and movement of someone you'd genetically engineer in a lab to play corner in the NFL. After he transferred from Colorado he had a career year, with four interceptions and nine forced incompletions. And he can tackle, with just 6% misses last year. He played some slot, but primarily stayed on the boundary X-receivers, and showed the skills to use the sideline to squeeze their routes in man coverage, which is his specialty. He's already a polished, complete corner, with 24 games played in the last two season. But there's still room to improve with experience and learning to use his size better on 50/50 balls.

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie

Devon Witherspoon, Illinois. 5-11 1/2, 181 lbs, 4.40

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A lot of the punditry class have Witherspoon as their top corner. Which makes sense given he's the best read-and-react CB on the board, only giving up 22 completions on 62 targets and an insane 3.3 yards per attempt to go along with 14 passes broken up and three picks. In other words, statistically speaking, if you targeted him, there was almost as good a chance he'd touch the ball than your receiver would. And three completions in a row wouldn't get you a 1st down. He played all over the formation (though mostly as wide corner), and a Variety Pack of coverages, from Zone to Pattern Match to Man. He also plays with a huge hair across his ass. In a good way. And that attitude should only get nastier once he gets his pump on in an NFL weight room.

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Kendall Fuller

Joey Porter Jr., Penn State. 6-2 1/2, 193 lbs, 4.46

If Press Man is your coverage of preference, look no further than this NFL legacy pledge, because Porter is Best in Show. He only gave up 143 yards in 10 games, which works out to … 143, divide by 10 … not much at all. He's big and rangey and will extend his arms into a guy's shoulders at the line to knock him off his route. If he has a shortcoming, it's that he has the hands of a defensive back, with just one interception in a three-year career as a starter. And as a result, there are times when balls he should come away with end up as completions. Still, his father's general badassery did not skip a generation.

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Xavier Rhodes

Deonte Banks, Maryland. 6-0, 197 lbs, 4.35

Pretty much a strictly outside corner at Maryland, Banks serves up the ideal Size/Speed Combo Platter that will satisfy everyone at your party. He out jumped everyone at the Lucas Oil Olympics in the Vertical, and came within two inches of gold in the Broad Jump. What he lacks is experience, with just 19 games played in the last three seasons; though the good news is that 12 of those came last year, when he ranked fourth in the Big Ten in completion % and only missed one tackle all year. He produced in a variety of coverages, including but not limited to mirror match press and making the calls in zone. He needs to get better at playing the ball instead of the man, but that should come with more flight hours and good coaching.

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Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Carlton Davis

The Plan Bs:

Emmanuel Forbes, Mississippi State. 6-1, 166 lbs, 4.35

Here's your top playmaker, with an FBS record SIX Pick-6s and 14 interceptions in all. His strong suit is Man coverage, where he pulled down as many interceptions as he gave up completions, with three each. And in Man he gave up completions at a rate of just 20%, lowest in the nation. He's got good change of direction and the hip turn of a great double play 2nd baseman, especially for a guy as lanky as he is. But therein lies the rub. That weight is not a typo. Some people had him listed at 180, but I got the 166 from NFL.com. A guy his size makes a lot of business decisions in the run game, and is prone to get blasted out of his cleats when he doesn't. To bottom line this, he's a cover corner. Meaning he'll find a job somewhere. Just not Foxboro, or everything I and McCourty know is wrong.

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Darius Slay

Cam Smith, South Carolina. 6-1, 180 lbs, 4.43

Another tallish, thinnish prospect who's going to need to hit the protein powder aisle at GNC, Smith nevertheless has the ball skills to get his hand on 15 of the 70 passes that came his way over the last two years and intercept four others. And don't be mistaken by his lack of mass; he's a willing tackler, with just five misses on the season. Spent two seasons understudying to Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu, but has played four seasons, the last two as a starter and has made All-SEC. So he's got experience, a high football IQ. What he lacks is any sort of elite traits. But he's got as much experience in the slot as any of these highly graded prospects, and may develop into a starter on the inside.

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: AJ Bouye

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Kelee Ringo, Georgia. 6-2, 207 lbs, 4.36

A five-star recruit and No. 1 corner in the nation when he came out, Ringo needed surgery that cost him his freshman season, but still found time to squeeze in two national championships. He's got a rare size/speed profile and can keep up with practically anybody on a Go route. I say "practically," because in the 2021 SEC title game, Jameson Williams got him flat-footed with a move, got past him, and Ringo was never able to close the gap. His strong suit is press, and is limited in the sort of off coverage/backpedalling/eyes on the QB type skills called for with playing zone. And when he has to plant his feet and come downhill on a receiver breaking off his route into the curls and flats, he's slow to change direction and leaves guys open in front of him. So physically he's a quality piece of lumber that's going to need a lot of cutting, sanding and polishing at the next level. But should end up leading the NFL as a rookie in exposure to Samuel L. Jackson Pulp Fiction quotes.

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Jimmy Smith

Plan C with a Name Like a "Full House" character:

DJ Turner, Michigan. 5-11, 178 lbs, 4.26

That insane 40-time was the fourth fastest in the history of the Indianapolis Rodeo at any position. Turner has the acceleration of a Tesla Cybertruck, if not its payload or towing capacity. And yet, offenses still looked his way, with 71 targets, 33 completions and over 400 yards against him last year, after avoiding him all of 2021. His short area quickness and change of direction are as elite as his straight line speed, with the ability to stay with receivers on choice routes underneath. The problem comes, as you might imagine, when he gets overpowered by bigger-bodied receivers. For that reason, he played almost exclusively at wide boundary corner and will undoubtedly have to stay outside the numbers in the pros.

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Avonte Maddox

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Two Plan Cs the Patriots Met With:

Julius Brents, Kansas State. 6-3, 198, 4.53

A big drink o' Gatorade with a the wingspan of a pterodactyl that hauled in four passes last year and batted down three others, Brents spent a lot of time in single coverage with no safety help, despite his lack of speed relative to the rest of these corners. As you can imagine, he's physical and tough, taking on bigger targets, particularly in the red zone where he can out muscle guys trying to post him up. And his other greatest asset is his route recognition, particularly in pattern match zone. In run force, he's tough enough to take on pulling guards and lead backs in the hole, and had just four missed tackles in 14 games.

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Trumaine Johnson

Mekhi Garner, LSU. 6-2, 212 lbs, 4.55

Another guy for the Size Queens out there, Garner is big for the position and might rate as high as he does on the conensus draft boards because teams see him as a safety. He's fairly fluid for his body type, can get his hips around and stay parallel to his assignment. It's when he's having to get into trail technique or follow someone on a deep slant that he gets exposed somewhat and starts getting illegal with the use of the hands. If he's not a true safety, he probably projects as a matchup-specific hybrid for use in sub-packages and goal line.

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Rasul Douglas

Just Because:

Kyu Blu Kelly, Stanford. 6-0, 191 lbs, 4.52

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I'm trying to conquer my fear of DBs from Stanford brought on by watching Jordan Richards in Super Bowl LII. And Kelly could be just the guy for that. He's not a straight-ahead runner as much as he's got the kind of lateral quickness McCourty was talking about around a 112 paragraphs ago. And he's got the big brain and instincts to anticipate routes and the direction of running plays and react. Basically my roundabout way of saying he's got the intangibles to be a productive role player, and perhaps a starter/team leader down the road. You will never iso him on anyone's WR1. But if you play to his strength, which is press man and throw him at some WR2 or put him in the slot, he can contribute.

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: Cameron Sutton

And Because You Can't Have Too Many:

Nic Jones, Ball State. 6-0, 198 lbs, 4.51


Jones is a last day of the draft prospect and possible UDFA. He's got the size profile of an NFL corner. And can be effective when he gets his hands on a guy because he's got the power to knock him off his route. But he also tends to give a soft cushion that will cause him problems at the next level. Plus there's some question about his tackling, which is a deal killer, as we discussed earlier. Still, I wouldn't put it past the personnel department to put him on the roster, just to prank that noble class of Americans who spend Patriots games taking notes.

Compares to the Other Leading Brand: [Insert First Name Here] Jones

The Perfect Patriot: Looking at the physical traits, I'd say Banks. Even though they've gone smaller - with success - last year, he's got the size, the speed, the coverage skills and the toughness to be a great fit. I just think he's going way too high for them to ignore other needs when they've got three Jones all under team friendly deals for the foreseeable future.

Whom the Patriots will Select: Brents. If this makes no sense to you, believe me, it doesn't to me, either. But I'm going with it because when I see them meeting specifically with big, physical corners who'll be available in the middle rounds, I can only assume this is their type this year. They've gone small across the board and are having problems matching up with behemoths on the other side of the line. So they want a return to what Browner gave them back in 2014, though hopefully without all the defensive holding calls. They're looking to fill a particular need, and swiping right on the big fella from Kansas State. And then later on, they'll add Nic Jones, just to mess with us.

Earlier previews: 

Wide receivers

Offensive tackles

Tight ends

Edge

Safeties