New England Patriots

Patriots defensive backs (L-R) Duron Harmon, Devin McCourty, Jason McCourty, J.C. Jackson, and Jonathan Jones head to the practice field outside Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. for minicamp on June 5, 2019. (Matt Dolloff/WBZ-FM)

By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com

The Patriots had six cornerbacks on the 53-man roster in the 2018 playoffs. In 2019, one of them is not making the team.

Unless Bill Belichick hits us with the ol’ seven-cornerback strategy, the Patriots head coach has a tough decision ahead of him at that position on the main roster. With training camp practices starting Thursday, he has seven cornerbacks capable of making the final 53.

For most of 2018, the Pats generally carried 4-5 active CBs on game days, with one inactive. So we’re looking at a competition for five, maybe six CB spots with two locked up already.

That’s what Belichick essentially told his existing cornerback group the moment he traded up in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft to select Joejuan Williams out of Vanderbilt. One of you is probably on the way out.

The Depth Chart

1. Stephon Gilmore
2. Jason McCourty
3. J.C. Jackson
4. Jonathan Jones
5. Keion Crossen
6. Duke Dawson
7. Joejuan Williams
8. Ken Webster (PUP list)
9. D’Angelo Ross

Here’s how the Patriots’ cornerback group would look if Belichick went insane and kept all nine of them. As you can see, the depth this year is real. Williams is only seventh here because he’s a rookie, but he may be the least likely to be going anywhere as a rookie second round pick.

The Contracts

Name 2019 Cash Cap Hit Saved if cut/traded
Stephon Gilmore $10 million $9.1 million $499,999/$1,499,999
Jason McCourty $6 million $4.25 million $500,000/$2.5M
Jonathan Jones $3.095M $3.095M $3.095M
Joejuan Williams $3.3 million $1.2 million -$300,535/$495,000
Duke Dawson $695,676 $1.07 million $0/695,676
Keion Crossen $570,000 $588,598 $570,000/$570,000
J.C. Jackson $570,000 $573,333 $570,000/$570,000
Ken Webster $569,576 $513,644 $495,000
D’Angelo Ross $497,500 $495,833 $480,000/$495,000

(Figures via Spotrac)

Above are the pertinent financial figures for all of the Patriots’ corners. Clearly, Williams will not be getting cut. Based simply on the numbers, the CB most likely to find himself a victim of a cap crunch is Jonathan Jones, whose $3.095 million RFA tender won’t count against the cap and is fully non-guaranteed.

And while moving on from Stephon Gilmore or Jason McCourty would technically save space, Gilmore is entrenched after an All-Pro season and contract restructure as a defensive cornerstone. McCourty, meanwhile, is guaranteed $5.5 million on his new two-year deal. So it doesn’t make sense to even consider moving on from him until next offseason.

Stephon Gilmore

Feb 3, 2019; Atlanta, GA: New England Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore celebrates after winning Super Bowl LIII against the Los Angeles Rams at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Feb 3, 2019; Atlanta, GA: New England Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore celebrates after winning Super Bowl LIII against the Los Angeles Rams at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Gilmore’s second season with the Patriots was his best as a pro, as he racked up 20 pass breakups on the way to First Team All-Pro honors and a pivotal interception late in Super Bowl LIII. Besides a couple of bumps in the road (Week 2 at Jacksonville, Week 10 at Tennessee), Gilmore lived up to his “Gilly Lock” nickname with consistent shadowing against top receivers. There’s plenty of reason to be confident in the Pats secondary with Gilmore entering his prime and playing the best football of his career.

Jason McCourty

ATLANTA, GA - FEBRUARY 03: Brandin Cooks of the Los Angeles Rams drops a pass in the endzone as he is defended by Jason McCourty of the New England Patriots in the second half during Super Bowl LIII at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

ATLANTA, GA – FEBRUARY 03: Brandin Cooks of the Los Angeles Rams drops a pass in the endzone as he is defended by Jason McCourty of the New England Patriots in the second half during Super Bowl LIII at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

After a roller coaster camp when he appeared in danger of being cut, McCourty turned that around in a major way with an excellent season as the Patriots’ primary No. 2 cornerback behind Gilmore. McCourty played both inside and outside and by the end of the season was moving all over the field. His run culminated with perhaps the biggest defensive play of the Super Bowl when he broke up a potential easy touchdown for Brandin Cooks.

The Pats rewarded McCourty with a two-year deal that includes $5.5 million guaranteed, so they will almost certainly ride Devin’s twin brother for at least this season despite their depth of young corners.

J.C. Jackson

May 23, 2019; Foxborough, MA: New England Patriots defensive back J.C. Jackson catches the ball during organized team activities at Gillette Stadium practice field. (Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports)

May 23, 2019; Foxborough, MA: New England Patriots defensive back J.C. Jackson catches the ball during organized team activities at Gillette Stadium practice field. (Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports)

Emerging as the Patriots’ undrafted free agent of choice, Jackson rewarded Belichick’s confidence in him when he took on a bigger role in the secondary as the season went along. Especially after Eric Rowe headed to injured reserve, Jackson improved the Patriots defense on the boundary with his ball skills and physicality while he allowed McCourty to play inside more. Barring a major, surprising dropoff, Jackson can be safely expected to land on the 53-man roster.

Jonathan Jones

FOXBOROUGH, MA – DECEMBER 23: Jonathan Jones #31 of the New England Patriots reacts after Stephen Hauschka #4 of the Buffalo Bills (not pictured) missed a field goal during the first quarter at Gillette Stadium on December 23, 2018 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Jones actually played safety in the Super Bowl, but his calling card is still as an inside corner. He had an up-and-down season in that role during his third season with the Patriots, but stepped up big-time in helping slow down the Chiefs’ Tyreek Hill in the AFC Championship Game. Jones is one of the only players on the team where his contract could factor into what Belichick does with him.

Since it would cost the Pats nothing against the cap or with real money to cut or trade him before the season, Jones will have to prove himself a necessary choice over his younger, cheaper counterparts. The good news is that Jones has shown enough in his first three seasons to carry trade value around the league as a potential starting slot corner at an affordable price.

Keion Crossen

Aug 9, 2018; Foxborough, MA, USA; Washington Redskins quarterback Colt McCoy (12) throws the ball away while being pursued by New England Patriots defensive back Keion Crossen (35) during the first half at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Crossen was primarily used on special teams when active, but took on more of a role in the defense later in the season. His best performance came in the AFCCG when he worked mostly in tandem with Jonathan Jones to contain Hill. His long-term outlook may still be that of a special teamer, but a very fast and athletic one at that. As a rookie, he felt like a prospect who could one day challenge to push Matthew Slater out as the primary gunner.

Is Crossen ready for that? Probably not just yet, considering how excellent Slater still is at his job and how strong of a leader he continues to be as a team captain. But if Crossen wants to stick around, he likely has to continue to rise on special teams.

Duke Dawson

Grant Haley of the New York Giants takes down Duke Dawson of the New England Patriots during a preseason NFL game at MetLife Stadium on August 30, 2018 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

Grant Haley of the New York Giants takes down Duke Dawson of the New England Patriots during a preseason NFL game at MetLife Stadium on August 30, 2018 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

Many may point to Dawson as a draft bust, or an easy decision to cut or trade before the season. It’s far too early to label him anything other than a prospect, and it’s highly unlikely that Belichick moves on from a second-round pick before his second season and before he got a real opportunity to play.

If that happened, Belichick would be tacitly admitting to a complete disaster of a draft pick. But even the Patriots probably haven’t seen enough of Dawson yet to make that kind of determination. Dawson still has the skill set of an effective inside corner and/or box safety. Belichick will almost surely exercise patience with Dawson and choose to keep him over someone whose own performance isn’t worth the higher price. Dawson will be in direct competition with Jones and Crossen, in addition to the rookies.

Joejuan Williams

Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman and cornerback Joejuan Williams take the field for minicamp on June 5, 2019. (Matt Dolloff/WBZ-FM)

Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman and cornerback Joejuan Williams take the field for minicamp on June 5, 2019. (Matt Dolloff/WBZ-FM)

Gilmore is a roster lock, and Williams is arguably even more of a lock. The Patriots didn’t move up in the second round to take Williams only to think about moving on any time soon. The question is what kind of role Williams will play as a rookie and how quickly he can rise up the depth chart. He has the kind of size (6-foot-3, 212 pounds) that no other corner has on the roster.

What may hold Williams back is that he needs more seasoning with his press coverage, which should eventually be an asset for a player his size. But the physical traits and competitive nature are there, the things Belichick can’t coach. The hope is he molds Williams into a guy he can rely upon to cover bigger pass-catchers, but we’ll see if he takes on that kind of role at any point in year one. If Jackson can, he can.

Ken Webster

Ken Webster of the Mississippi Rebels breaks up a pass intended for Stephen Sullivan of the LSU Tigers during the first half of a game at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on October 21, 2017 in Oxford, Mississippi. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

Ken Webster of the Mississippi Rebels breaks up a pass intended for Stephen Sullivan of the LSU Tigers during the first half of a game at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on October 21, 2017 in Oxford, Mississippi. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

Webster is strong and physical and has upside as a tackler at the NFL level. But his passing game skills need work and he got docked for inconsistency during his time at Ole Miss, which made him a late-round flyer at best. Since his skill set is currently more conducive to defending the run, there are questions of whether he’d be better suited at safety. Perhaps that’s what Belichick is planning with Webster, but the likelihood is that he’ll have to stash him on IR or the practice squad if he wants to keep him around.

D’Angelo Ross

May 23, 2019; Foxborough, MA: New England Patriots defensive back D'Angelo Ross catches the ball during organized team activities at Gillette Stadium practice field. (Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports)

May 23, 2019; Foxborough, MA: New England Patriots defensive back D’Angelo Ross catches the ball during organized team activities at Gillette Stadium practice field. (Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports)

Ross will find himself in competition with the likes of Crossen and Webster. His 4.32 40-yard dash would have ranked him third at the Combine, so there’s at least some intrigue there. He’ll have a severely uphill battle to make the main roster, though. Belichick may be able to safely park him on the practice squad if he wants to, anyway.

What To Watch For

With two roster spots locked up and only 3-4 openings for seven players, Belichick will have one or two hard cuts/trades to make at this position. It will be interesting to see who lines up where, which will give a clearer picture of who’s competing with who. Jon Jones will be a player to watch closely as a guy with no guaranteed money and no guaranteed roster spot.

The good news? This is the team’s deepest position and they’ll be in a great spot no matter who stays and goes.

Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at matthew.dolloff@bbgi.com.