Patriots Draft Preview: Cornerbacks


Current Roster: Stephon Gilmore, Jason McCourty, Jonathan Jones, Eric Rowe, Cyrus Jones, Ryan Lewis, the one they call Jomal Wiltz

Positional Overview: As the NFL Rules Committee continues to evolve tackle football into a sport played on a broomstick with Quaffles and Snitches, the search for elite cornerbacks gets more important by the year. At last year’s draft, New Orleans found their Seeker in Pro Bowler Marshon Lattimore. But Buffalo, Tennessee and Seattle made out well with, respectively, Tre’Davious White, Adoree’ Jackson and Shaquill Griffin as well. But there’s been a high bust rate on this position over the past decade or so. And since quality corners are making huge money and are therefore difficult to keep past their rookie deals, finding top talent in the draft is vital.

Thanks to the signing of Jason McCourty it’s not Priority One in New England. But it’s never not the priority list someplace. Thanks to the bizarre, Greek Tragedy-like ending of Malcolm Butler’s hero’s journey, depth is a problem. Unless you’re one of the people who remembers Eric Rowe playing well over the last three quarters of the Super Bowl. In which case you’re one up on me because I’ve repressed all those memories. And Cyrus Jones might turn out to be what they hoped he was when they took him with their first pick (60th overall) in 2016. But since he’s basically redshirted the first two seasons of his career, it’d be sheer negligence to assume anything.

So it comes down what they’re looking for, in what I assume will be a Friday or Saturday selection. I’ve said before I think that during the Dark Ages of the Bradichick Dynasty, Belichick assumed that the big, physical corner was going extinct, killed off by the passing rules. So he miscalculated that the future belonged to these small, mobile corners with quick baseball turns to flip their hips and mirror receivers. But who couldn’t cover or tackle worth shit. These useless 5-10 guys like Jonathan Wilhite, Terrance Wheatley and Darius Butler whose failures set the defense back years. Over time he saw the error of his ways and started drafting size. Unfortunately that has had mixed results, as Devin McCourty (drafted as a CB before moving back to safety) was a grand slam but Ras-IR Dowling (33rd overall) is the single biggest misfire of Belchick’s Patriots drafting career. Since then he hit the mark on Logan Ryan and several safeties. But cornerback overall has been the toughest position of any for the Patriots to nail. Fortunately this is considered a strong class with enough depth to find quality in the middle rounds, where I expect them to be looking.

The Consensus Best in Show:

Denzel Ward, Ohio State. 5-foot-11, 183 pounds, 4.32 40-time

Ward has a ton going for him, starting with his freakish athleticism. His 40 at the Indy Dunder-Mifflin Company Picnic was tied for the fastest at the position and he arguably has the best feet at any position in the draft. He primarily lined up at left corner for the Buckeyes, playing press/man in their single high safety scheme. But he has some experience at right corner, slot in zone. The downside for him is obviously his lack of size. And the fact that he’s a product of Urban Meyer’s system where DBs are coached to laser focus on the receiver instead of tracking the ball. Which Ward excelled at. I meant he didn’t get a lot of interceptions, instead waited for the ball to arrive, get his hands inside the WR’s arms and rip it out. But after seeing Lattimore come up through the same system to make the Pro Bowl as a rookie doesn’t hurt Ward at all. I’ve seen him in mocks going as high as 6th and no lower than 14th.
Compares to the leading brand: Jason Verrett

The Hybrid Corner/Safety:

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama. 6-0, 204 lb, 4.46
Depending on where you look, Fitzpatrick is either the second best cornerback or the very best free safety in his class. Though I think by now he’s expect to be the latter, I’m nevertheless tossing him a mention here because he’s got the body type, athleticism and versatility to do either in the pros. Not to mention the intangibles, which I want to say are immeasurable, but since by definition you can’t measure intangibles, I’ll just say people really like him. A notorious film room geek he became studied enough at Nick Saban’s schemes that he was making the defensive calls even as a junior. He won both the Jim Thorn and the Chuck Bednarik awards, something only done before by Charles Woodson and Patrick Peterson, who were/are both good at football. If there are any concerns with him, it’s his pedigree. Defensive backs from Alabama have a spotty record in the pros. At best. A few years ago I could barely find a negative thing said about Dee Milliner and I think he served me a coffee last week. But then Saban can see your Milliner and raise you a Mark Barron. And a guy with all of Fitzpatrick’s attributes is about as blue as a blue chip prospect can get.
Compares to the leading brand: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix

Consolation Prize:

Josh Jackson, Iowa. 6-0, 196 lb, 4.56


Count me among the fans of 90s basic cable who were crushed when he stopped going by Joshua Jackson. Because no one will ever be cooler than mid-90s Pacey. Be that as it may, this Jackson is the best ball hawk in this class, with 8 interceptions, five against Ohio State and Wisconsin, with two pick-6s. Like Richard Sherman, he’s a converted wide receiver, so he has that feel for the position that helps him anticipate and jump routes. He’s long (mind out of the gutter, you) but not particularly big, so he could stand some time in the gym. He played mainly outside with some reps in the slot when Iowa played two safeties. Weirdly teams weren’t scared to target Jackson, but they should have been. According to Pro Football Focus, on 91 targets he gave up a 28.6 completion percentage, had a combined 26 INTs and passed defensed, and his passer rating against was 36.5 And as they pointed out, that means QBs would have done statistically better if they’d just chucked the ball into the turf. By the end of the season, coaches had him shadowing opponents’ top wideout, something they didn’t even do with Micah Hyde or Desmond King. The Patriots met with him at his Pro Day and he is a leaf off the Kirk Ferentz branch of the Belichick tree. But they won’t have a shot at him without packaging picks and moving up. Way up.
Compares to the leading brand: Aqib Talib

A Potential Faller:

Jaire Alexander, Louisville. 5-10, 196 lb, 4.38
Physically Alexander is built like one of those aforementioned smaller corners that the Pats kept missing on in the dark days between Asante Samuel and Devin McCourty. But he doesn’t play like it. He’s got the sudden movement and change-of-direction you look for. He’s physical when it comes to jamming receivers coming off the line and fearlessly sticks his nose in to blow up bubble screens. The major issue is he missed five games with a sprained knee, which might cost him the mid-1st round spot he was looking at when the year began. I mean, the way he ran at the Lucas Oil Olympics should end any doubt. But in these early rounds, sometimes the only Inside Out character these GMs listen to in their heads is Fear. And we all know how Belichick loves to get a bargain on a guy who drops due to injury concerns. Especially if he can get a guy with 7 INTs who can return punts on the cheap.
Compares to the leading brand: Antoine Winfield

Second Rounders with Size:

Isaiah Oliver, Colorado. 6-0, 201 lb, 4.50
Oliver is a legacy. His dad Muhammad played corner in the NFL for five years after being one of the top decathletes in the world. And he inherited enough physical traits to give an NFL D-backs coach a lot to work with. He’s tall. His wingspan is 33 1/2”. He moves well with the kinds of swivel hips you don’t often see outside of me on a dance floor. His biggest drawback is his relative lack of straight line speed, which showed on tape as he got blown past on occasion. But he uses his long arms to recover often enough to have 35 passes defended and a completion percentage against of only 41.3. Colorado State’s Michael Gallup is a highly rated prospect and Oliver held him to just six catches on 15 targets. For a team shopping more for a physical, outside corner to take on big receivers and less worried about top end speed, he’ll probably be available in the first 40-50 spots.
Compares to the leading brand: Darius Slay

Carlton Davis, Auburn. 6-1, 206 lb, 4.53


Everything you hear about Davis, in addition to his size, is the nasty, competitive edge he plays with. He was one of the most recruited players in the country coming out of Florida. A naturally gifted combination of size and speed with 32 3/4” arms, he was a colossal pain in the ass to a lot of NFL-caliber skill position talent. He doesn’t move all that well in space and his game lacks some refinement so he wouldn’t be a fit in a zone system. But as a disruptive, press-cover role he can be an immediate starter.
Compares to the leading brand: Richard Sherman

More Red Flags Than 1936 Berlin:

Mike Hughes, Central Florida. 5-10, 189 lb, 4.53
Hughes transferred from North Carolina for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. It might have been a fight at a frat, which would bother no one. Or, if there’s some validity to the rumors, it might have been sexual assault, which would bother everyone. Needless to say his interviews had a lot riding on them. As a corner, he’s got the movement, balance and competitive makeup to lock onto targets and stick to them. In a league where slot receiver is a starting position and slot corner is fast becoming one, he has the skills to stay with those elusive inside receivers who can be a matchup nightmare for traditional corners. He’s just got to clarifiy the off-field stuff because whoever drafts him will have much to ‘splain.
Compares to the leading brand: Kareem Jackson

A Highly Rated Prospect the Patriots Worked Out:

Duke Dawson, Florida. 5-11, 197 lb, 4.46

If you look at the list of cornerbacks the Patriots met with, you’d be hard pressed (Safety tip: Avoid being pressed hard) to find names that show up in the major scouting publications. Josh Jackson is one. Dawson is the other. With the Gators he played behind early picks Vernon Hargreaves, Quincy Wilson and Teez Tabor, and earned enough playing time both at safety and nickel to appear in 11 games as a true freshman and every game as a sophomore. He’s a little stocky for a corner. But then again, they said Luke was a little short for a Stormtrooper and he saved his galaxy four times (and counting). He plays above his size with a good first punch that he follows by getting into his backpedal and hip turn to mirror route runners. Last season he led Florida in interceptions with four, made first team All-SEC and then parlayed that into a great week at the Senior Bowl. That stocky build helps him be a solid run-force defender and a reliable tackler. Christian Kirk of Texas A&M is considered by most to be the best slot WR prospect in this draft and Dawson threw an Invisibility Cloak (second Harry Potter reference FTW) over him. Dawson has a reputation for being a selfless, team-first guy with a good football IQ who can identify route combinations and handle the complex pattern reading zone concepts taught by guys like Saban and Belichick.
Compares to the leading brand: Who’s the guy that intercepted the pass at the end of Super Bowl XLIX? Whatshisname. That guy.

The Perfect Patriot: Minkah Fitzpatrick. But keep dreaming. The Pats never suck enough to have a shot at talents like him. Even if they packaged picks, the price will be too high.

Who the Patriots Will Draft: Duke Dawson. I’ve seen mocks where he goes as high as 48, but as low as 98. If teams pass on him due to his size and the fact he’s not a true outside the numbers corner, I can definitely see the Pats moving around the Day 2 draft board to grab him. In spite of my Pennywise-level fear of guys from U. of Florida, he’ll fit in perfectly as a slot corner and the Robber role, as well as become a core-4 special teamer from Day One. Duke Dawson is the pick.

Earlier previews:


Offensive tackle

Tight ends