New England Patriots

New England Patriots

Kaiir Elam #5 of the Florida Gators celebrates after breaking up a pass against the Virginia Cavaliers during the first half of the Capital One Orange Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium on December 30, 2019 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

  • Heading into the 2022 NFL Draft, cornerback – specifically boundary corner – is arguably the biggest position of need on the Patriots’ roster. The team has lost two All-Pro caliber players in the last two years in Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson, and a lack of recent success drafting at the position has left them with both a lack of starting-caliber talent and depth. Beyond 2021 free agency signing Jalen Mills, what the position will look like in 2022 is pretty much a mystery.

    Even slot corner projects as a future need. Jonathan Jones has played the position well for the past over the past six seasons, but the time he missed last year showcased how important it is for the Patriots to have talent at that position. Jones will be on the final year of his contract in 2022.

    In the past, projecting potential Patriots fits at the cornerback position in the draft was easier than some other positions. Over the past 20 years, they’ve preferred bigger, more physical cornerbacks who can press at the line and are strong in man coverage. However, personnel moves made this offseason suggest a change in defensive philosophy. So in addition to the typical press-man corners, players more suited for zone feel as realistic now as they ever have.

    How does all of that relate to this year’s draft board? Let’s take a look at the top cornerbacks in this class, and some potential sleepers that profile as fits for the Patriots as well.

  • Reaches

    Sep 18, 2021; Baton Rouge, LA, USA; LSU Tigers cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. (7) reacts after making a tackle against the Central Michigan Chippewas at Tiger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott Clause/The Advertiser via USA TODAY NETWORK

    Sep 18, 2021; Baton Rouge, LA, USA; LSU Tigers cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. (7) reacts after making a tackle against the Central Michigan Chippewas at Tiger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott Clause/The Advertiser via USA TODAY NETWORK

    There’s been some debate over who is the top cornerback in this class. LSU’s Derek Stingley Jr. missed most of the 2021 season due to an injury, and didn’t take part in the Combine. That opened the door for Ahmad ‘Sauce’ Gardner of Cincinnati. Stingley finally worked out for scouts at the LSU Pro Day last week, and now things may be shifting back in his favor.

    Either way, both are projected to go in the top 10. Short of a major trade up from the Patriots, neither is realistically in the cards.

  • Round 1

    COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA - NOVEMBER 27: Cornerback Andrew Booth Jr. #23 of the Clemson Tigers makes an interception on a pass intended for wide receiver Josh Vann #6 of the South Carolina Gamecocks in the second quarter during their game at Williams-Brice Stadium on November 27, 2021 in Columbia, South Carolina. (Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)

    COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA – NOVEMBER 27: Cornerback Andrew Booth Jr. #23 of the Clemson Tigers makes an interception on a pass intended for wide receiver Josh Vann #6 of the South Carolina Gamecocks in the second quarter during their game at Williams-Brice Stadium on November 27, 2021 in Columbia, South Carolina. (Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)

    There’s a trio of cornerbacks expected to go right around the 21st pick. As things stand now, there’s not too much of a consensus on the order, and while it’s unlikely all three are gone by the 21st pick the Patriots probably won’t have a choice of all three either.

    If the Patriots are still looking to add that big outside cornerback to compliment the currently versatile secondary, the best fit of the three is Kaiir Elam out of Florida. At 6-foot-1, 191 pounds, he plays like a Patriots cornerback, jamming receivers at the line and contending physically down the field and at the catch point.

    Andrew Booth Jr. from Clemson is another fit in that mold. He’s 6-foot, 194 pounds and has some of the longest arms of any cornerback in this class. He’s slightly less experienced that Elam, having played 24 games in three years with the Tigers. At the same time, his assignments were more diverse at Clemson, and he does have some experience in zone.

    If the Patriots want to stick with their positionless secondary through and through, then it would make sense for them to target Washington’s Trent McDuffieAt 5-foot-11, 193 pounds McDuffie was asked to do a lot for the Huskies. He’s shown starting-caliber ability in zone and man, playing both outside and in the slot. He’s also a willing and skilled tackler that will be a factor in the run game.

  • Round 2

    Dec 31, 2020; Fort Worth, TX, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs cornerback Martin Emerson (1) breaks up a pass intended for Tulsa Golden Hurricane wide receiver Sam Crawford Jr. (9) during the second half at Amon G. Carter Stadium. Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

    Dec 31, 2020; Fort Worth, TX, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs cornerback Martin Emerson (1) breaks up a pass intended for Tulsa Golden Hurricane wide receiver Sam Crawford Jr. (9) during the second half at Amon G. Carter Stadium. Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

    As mentioned above, there’s a chance McDuffie doesn’t make it to the 21st pick. If the Patriots want that multi-positional corner but miss out on McDuffie, they could move up in the second round and take Roger McCreary out of Auburn. McCreary’s size (5-foot-11, 190 pounds, 28″ arms) may limit his reps as a true boundary corner in the NFL, but wherever he lines up on the field he has the physicality and instincts of a ballhawk corner. He played mostly man in college, but took strides as a zone defender in 2021.

    Washington’s Kyle Gordon is another potential multi-positional cornerback expected to go in the second round. Gordon wins mainly with his athleticism, and has the mentality teams will look for in an NFL cornerback.

    On the other hand, if the Patriots really want to bridge their old defensive philosophy with a new scheme, they won’t find a better fit than Martin Emerson from Mississippi State. Emerson is one of the biggest cornerbacks expected to go over the first two days at 6-foot-2, 200 pounds. He played press for the Bulldogs, but mainly worked in zone coverage. He should be able to bully receivers down the field – which the Patriots like to do – while still handling zone assignments.

  • Round 3

    Dec 4, 2021; Cincinnati, Ohio, USA; Houston Cougars cornerback Marcus Jones (8) prior to the game against the Cincinnati Bearcats during the American Athletic Conference championship at Nippert Stadium. Credit: Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

    Dec 4, 2021; Cincinnati, Ohio, USA; Houston Cougars cornerback Marcus Jones (8) prior to the game against the Cincinnati Bearcats during the American Athletic Conference championship at Nippert Stadium. Credit: Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

    The two most intriguing cornerback prospects in this entire draft are expected to go somewhere in the middle of Day 2. Tariq Woolen of UTSA and Zyon McCollum from Sam Houston State are both very raw, but their upside is as high as any cornerback in this year’s class aside from Stingley and Gardner.

    Physically, Woolen is one of the most dominant players in this draft. He stands 6-foot-4, 205 pounds with 34-inch arms and ran a 4.26 40 at the Combine. However, Woolen has only been playing cornerback for two years after moving to the defensive side of the ball from wide receiver. He’s still learning the position, but if he can get the technical elements down there won’t be many receivers that will be mismatches for him.

    McCollum was a ballhawk for the FCS Bearkats over the last five years, helping lead them to a national championship in 2021. Playing a press-man style at 6-foot-2, 199 pounds, his production jumps off the chart with 13 interceptions and 54 pass breakups in 56 games. He’ll have a bigger adjustment than most once he starts going against NFL-level competition, but he has Pro Bowl-caliber upside if he can make the leap.

    A more pro-ready player in this range is Cincinnati’s Coby Bryant. Bryant was a four-year starter for the Bearcats, and was tested often playing opposite Gardner. He plays physically at 6-foot-1, 193 pounds. Bryant projects as more of a zone corner than a man corner, and plays with a high motor in the running game. Scouts also rave about his approach when it comes to putting in the work off the field.

    In the slot, Houston’s Marcus Jones could fill a number of roles for the Patriots. Jones is relentless in his pursuit to get his hands on the football, with five interceptions and 13 pass breakups in 13 games last year. He’s also a surprisingly good tackler for his size (5-foot-8, 174 pounds).

    On top of that, Jones has been one of college football’s elite return men over the last four seasons. He has six career kick return touchdowns and three career punt return touchdowns, with two of each last year. The Patriots will need both spots filled this season. The team has a scout present at Jones’ Pro Day.

  • Early Day 3

    Sep 18, 2021; Gainesville, Florida, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide defensive back Josh Jobe (28) against the Florida Gators at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    Sep 18, 2021; Gainesville, Florida, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide defensive back Josh Jobe (28) against the Florida Gators at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    It’s time to add some Alabama players to this list. The Tide’s two starting corners are expected to go either late on Day 2 or early on Day 3, but the depth in this class could push them towards the latter.

    Josh Jobe is another prototypical Patriots boundary cornerback at 6-foot-1, 194 pounds. Heading into the year, Jobe was a projected first round pick and considered one of the best cornerbacks in this draft. However, he had an inconsistent 2021 that ended after 12 games due to a foot injury. The question teams will need to answer is was the 2021 season an anomaly? If they don’t believe so, he could be a tremendous value pick.

    Alabama’s other starting cornerback,  Jalyn Armour-Davis, started just one year and is the higher-upside option of the two players and may be more scheme-versatile. He brings tremendous athleticism to the position, and ran a 4.39 40 at 6-foot-1, 197 pounds at the Combine. He may be a year or two away from being a top two outside cornerback, but he has all the tools needed to get there. For a team like the Patriots that has had success developing raw talent at the position in recent years, he’d make a lot of sense – especially if they end up taking multiple players at the position.

    Back to true zone cornerbacks, Akayleb Evans has the size (6-foot-2, 198 pounds) to play physically like the Patriots like, but comes from a zone scheme at Missouri, where he played in 2021 after transferring from Tulsa. Like many Day 3 cornerbacks, Evans is still raw technically, in part because he played just 38 games in five years due to various injuries. He played a career-high 11 games in 2021 and recorded six pass breakups and a pick.

    Mykael Wright from Oregon is expected to go around the same range as Evans. He plays the game ferociously, both in coverage and as a tackler. That results in him playing bigger than his 5-foot-11, 178 pound frame, although he may be limited to a slot corner role in the NFL. He also returns kicks, and averaged 28.1 yards per return on 35 returns in his three seasons in Eugene, with two touchdowns.

  • Late Day 3

    Dec 11, 2020; Tucson, Arizona, USA; Arizona State Sun Devils defensive back Chase Lucas (24) against the Arizona Wildcats during the Territorial Cup at Arizona Stadium. Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    Dec 11, 2020; Tucson, Arizona, USA; Arizona State Sun Devils defensive back Chase Lucas (24) against the Arizona Wildcats during the Territorial Cup at Arizona Stadium. Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    Chase Lucas from Arizona State would be a good fit for the Patriots late in the draft. Lucas, who the team met with earlier this week, was a multi-year starter and team captain for the Sun Devils. He’s 6-foot, 185 pounds and already relatively advanced compared to the other players on the board in this range. The Patriots need depth as well as top-end talent at the position, and Lucas projects as the kind of player who will be able to play a contributing role relatively quickly.

    In terms of project players in this range Jaylen Watson from Washington State stands out. A Senior Bowl participant, Watson has played just 15 games of Division-I football after transferring from the JUCO level. He made great strides in 2021 with two interceptions, three pass breakups, and four fumble recoveries in 12 games. As he improves his technique, Watson projects to be a potential matchup chess piece at 6-foot-3, 204 pounds.

    Matt Hankins played a key role for an Iowa defense that was one of the best in college football last year. Hankins is a high-IQ player who is a physical competitor both in coverage and against the run. Those kind of cornerbacks tend to stick in New England, so it wouldn’t be surprising if he’s on their radar.

  • UDFAs

    CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA - DECEMBER 04: Jordan Addison #3 of the Pittsburgh Panthers attempts a catch while defended by Ja'Sir Taylor #6 of the Wake Forest Demon Deacons during the second half of the ACC Championship game at Bank of America Stadium on December 04, 2021 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Logan Whitton/Getty Images)

    CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA – DECEMBER 04: Jordan Addison #3 of the Pittsburgh Panthers attempts a catch while defended by Ja’Sir Taylor #6 of the Wake Forest Demon Deacons during the second half of the ACC Championship game at Bank of America Stadium on December 04, 2021 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Logan Whitton/Getty Images)

    There are few players in this draft more experienced than Ja’Sir Taylor, who played 62 games in five seasons at Wake Forest – the most in program history. In addition to playing cornerback, Taylor both returned and covered kicks.

    Quandre Mosley joined Kentucky coming from the JUCO ranks as a safety in 2020. He ended up making the move to cornerback, while contributing mainly on special teams over two years with the Wildcats. At Kentucky’s pro day, he stood out among an impressive class with a 4.32 40 and 36-inch vertical. Given his versatility, athleticism, and special teams ability, he could be a legitimate target for the Patriots.

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