Patriots’ cornerback depth about to get their biggest test of the summer
August 23rd, 2022
The Patriots’ cornerbacks have been a pleasant surprise throughout 2022 training camp. But they have yet to be tested as much as they could out in Las Vegas, against the Raiders’ dynamic stable of weapons.
Josh McDaniels and Raiders GM Dave Ziegler had an aggressive off-season, headlined by their acquisition of All-Pro wideout Davante Adams from the Packers. They still have tight end Darren Waller, who has posted a 17-game average of 100 receptions and 1,188 yards over the past three seasons. Slot receiver Hunter Renfrow is coming off a 103-catch season of his own.
The Patriots’ defense should be expected to know what to do and where to be against McDaniels’ passing attack. Whether they have the horses to execute is a different question. And that remains on the table as the New England secondary gears up for a challenge greater than that presented by the Giants or Panthers, or the Patriots’ own roster.
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At cornerback, the picture is coming more into focus after a different-looking first couple of weeks at training camp in Foxboro. The only thing that’s stayed constant throughout camp is that Jalen Mills has emerged as an every-snap starting outside cornerback, and a productive one at that. He virtually shut down the Panthers’ D.J. Moore and Robbie Anderson when matched up against them in last week’s joint practices, validating a lot of the hype that’s grown with him this summer.
But will Mills be tasked with covering Adams 1-on-1? The Patriots’ defensive approach in joint practices with the Raiders will shed light on how they plan to deploy their secondary against the elite of the elite. In the past, Bill Belichick would match up his No. 1 cornerback against the opponents’ No. 2 receiver, aiming for a total wipeout of that player. He would then double the top wideout with his No. 2 corner and safety help over the top.
Veteran Terrance Mitchell had a hot start to camp, grabbing most of the first-team reps and making the occasional play on the ball as the No. 2 outside corner opposite Mills. But since Jonathan Jones returned from the PUP list, Mitchell eventually took a backseat. As it stands entering joint practices in Las Vegas, the Patriots’ starting corners are Mills and Jonathan Jones on the outside, with third-year pro Myles Bryant manning the slot.
“They’re one of the good teams the last few years on offense,” said Jonathan Jones, when asked about going up against the Raiders. “They’ve got a lot of good, explosive players, bringing in Davante Adams, as you know, a good receiver. I’m excited to go against their offense. It’ll be another test for us.”
Assuming Mills can carry all his positive momentum into a strong performance in Vegas, the real question will be who steps up behind him. The Patriots’ cornerback depth has already taken a hit during the summer, with Malcolm Butler headed to injured reserve. Joejuan Williams was also placed on IR recently, but was a long shot to make the team.
Hope for the future does remain on the roster, though, in the form of a pair of promising rookies. Third-round pick Marcus Jones will be primarily a slot corner and he’s currently dealing with a logjam, as Bryant appears to be ahead of him on that particular depth chart. But his athleticism has stood out when he’s been given the opportunity. He could make an immediate impact as a punt returner, and his ability to cover in the slot could free them up to use Jonathan Jones wherever they want to fit him for a matchup.
Aug 19, 2022; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots cornerback Jonathan Jones (31) defends against Carolina Panthers wide receiver Keith Kirkwood (19) in the first half at Gillette Stadium. Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
Fourth-round pick Jack Jones, meanwhile, has been competitive in his practice reps and nearly made a nice interception in the Patriots’ preseason game against the Carolina Panthers last Friday. He appears to have a ways to go to gain enough trust from the coaching staff to elevate himself in the pecking order. But the Patriots definitely nabbed an outside corner with a nose for the football, who has Malcolm Butler-like potential to outperform his draft status.
The hope, in New England, is that the Patriots come out of this week still feeling good about what they’ve assembled in the post-Stephon Gilmore/J.C. Jackson era. Once arguably the biggest question mark on the roster, the 2022 edition of the cornerback group has exceeded expectations and alleviated a lot of concerns – so far.
We’ll see if that changes after they face their biggest test of the summer.
Matt Dolloff is a writer and podcaster 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? Yell at him on Twitter @mattdolloff and follow him on Instagram @realmattdolloff. You can also email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.