By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Patriots have pressing matters to attend to at a number of positions this year. Cornerback, however, isn’t one of them. Every cornerback on the roster from last season is scheduled to return in 2020.
From parting ways with Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler to signing Stephon Gilmore, the way Bill Belichick has managed the cornerback position over the last five years is nothing short of a masterclass. While they’re set up ideally for the upcoming season, Belichick can continue this impressive run during this NFL free agency period but keeping the group strong down the road.
J.C. Jackson and Jason McCourty both have contracts that expire after the 2020 season. Pending any extension this offseason, Jackson will likely be among the top options on the market next spring and price himself out of the Patriots’ plans. McCourty will be 33 years old and could contemplate retirement. Could the Patriots look to find replacements for one or both of those guys a year early so they’re not a year late?
If that’s the case, expect the Patriots to explore young, affordable, high-upside options. This year, the player most fitting that bill is Eli Apple. Taken by the Giants 10th overall in the 2016 NFL Draft, Apple struggled on and off the field in New York early in his career. He was suspended for a “pattern of behavior that is conduct detrimental to the team” at the end of 2017.
However, he turned his game around and proved to be a capable second corner following a trade to the New Orleans Saints in 2018. Apple has all of the makings of a Patriots reclamation project, and it shouldn’t break the bank for the team to sign him.
A slightly more pricey but solid option could be Super Bowl hero Kendall Fuller. The 25-year-old 2016 third-round pick started his career with the Washington Redskins before being shipped to Kansas City in the 2018 Alex Smith trade.
Fuller plays the majority of his snaps at slot corner, although is a truly versatile secondary player who can also play outside and even some deep safety. That ability is obviously something the Patriots would find attractive. A down year in 2019 and injury history (he’s played 16 games just once in his four-year career) should bring his price down into the Patriots ballpark. His older brother Vincent was on the Patriots roster for two days in 2011.
Extending the age a bit, it wouldn’t be shocking if the Patriots target Jimmy Smith. The team was reportedly high on the former Ravens cornerback going into the 2011 draft, but he was taken 27th overall, one pick before their selection.
At 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, Smith is the kind of big, physical corner the Patriots have targeted in recent years. When he’s on the field he’s been able to make a difference in the Ravens defense, but he hasn’t played more than 12 games in a season since 2015.
With all of their other needs, its likely the Patriots do nothing beyond adding camp depth at cornerback during this years free agency. Still, if Belichick wants to be proactive at the position, the choices are out there.
Make sure to check out other items on the Pats’ shopping list as they’re released.