New England Patriots

New England Patriots

With the NFL Draft just under two months away, a ‘big three’ has emerged of Patriots draft needs – wide receiver, tackle, and cornerback. On Thursday the first of those three positional groups began the NFL Combine rounds in Indianapolis, with cornerbacks holding their media availability for the week.

In particular, the Patriots should be looking for a big, outside corner to help them deal with some of the bigger matchup-headache receivers in the AFC. Lucky for them, the draft is loaded with such players – including a few the Patriots have met with this week. Here’s a rundown of the corners who are projected to go in the first round and confirmed meetings with the Patriots on Thursday…

  • Joey Porter Jr., Penn State

    STATE COLLEGE, PA - SEPTEMBER 24: Cornerback Joey Porter Jr. #9 of the Penn State Nittany Lions breaks up a pass intended for wide receiver Finn Hogan #17 of the Central Michigan Chippewas during the second half at Beaver Stadium on September 24, 2022 in State College, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

    STATE COLLEGE, PA – SEPTEMBER 24: Cornerback Joey Porter Jr. #9 of the Penn State Nittany Lions breaks up a pass intended for wide receiver Finn Hogan #17 of the Central Michigan Chippewas during the second half at Beaver Stadium on September 24, 2022 in State College, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

    Many consider Porter to be the top cornerback in this entire draft class. At 6-foot-2 with long arms, there aren’t many wide receivers he can’t match up with physically at the line of scrimmage. He excels both in press and at the catch point. If he runs a good 40, he may lock up the top cornerback spot in the draft.

    There are a few things about Porter that would make him a trend-breaking pick for the Patriots. For one, they’ve only taken one Penn State player in the Bill Belichick era (IOL Rich Ohrnberger, 2009 4th round). However, those trends are only true until they’re broken – as evidenced by the team making Tyquan Thornton just the third Baylor pick of the Belichick era – and the first since 2006 – last year.

    There’s also Porter’s dad, Joey Porter Sr., who played 13 seasons in the NFL including eight for the Steelers and three for the Dolphins. The elder Porter has been highly critical of the Patriots in the past, saying in 2009 he would hate the team “forever.”

    When asked about those comments, his son was quick to put them aside. “Pretty great organization,” he said when asked about the Patriots on Thursday. “I don’t think he’d [Porter Sr.] be too mad at the situation. He’ll just be happy I got picked up by a team that wanted me.” Porter continued by noting he feels he’s a system fit in New England.

  • Christian Gonzalez, Oregon

    Oregon’s Christian Gonzalez hauls in an interception as the No. 9 Oregon Ducks take on the No. 21 Oregon State Beavers at Reser Stadium in Corvallis, Ore. Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022. (Ben Lonergan/The Register-Guard/USA Today Network)

    Oregon’s Christian Gonzalez hauls in an interception as the No. 9 Oregon Ducks take on the No. 21 Oregon State Beavers at Reser Stadium in Corvallis, Ore. Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022. (Ben Lonergan/The Register-Guard/USA Today Network)

    Gonzalez, who called Bill Belichick a ‘legend’ when answering a question about the Patriots, is also in the running to be the top cornerback off the board in this draft. He was great at matching receivers throughout a route during his time in college, and has the size to compete at the catch point.

    After transferring from Colorado to Oregon, he picked up the new system well, which teams will like. His production was solid in his first year with the Ducks in 2023, with four interceptions and seven pass breakups last year.

    As is the case with most big cornerbacks, the speed and agility tests will go a long way in determining his draft position. But he’s certainly a name to know for Patriots fans.

  • Cam Smith, South Carolina

    COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA - NOVEMBER 27: Defensive back Cam Smith #9 of the South Carolina Gamecocks makes an interception against the Clemson Tigers in the first 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: Defensive back Cam Smith #9 of the South Carolina Gamecocks makes an interception against the Clemson Tigers in the first quarter during their game at Williams-Brice Stadium on November 27, 2021 in Columbia, South Carolina. (Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)

    There are similarities in Smith’s game to past South Carolina cornerbacks like Stephon Gilmore and Jaycee Horn. His football instincts stand out and plays well in contested catch situations.

    Smith’s interview with the Patriots drew some added attention, as he described it as “uncomfortable” when speaking to the media Thursday morning. “It was very intense, kind of felt uncomfortable,” Smith said when describing the meeting. “But I had to answer a lot of hard questions dealing with some of the stuff I did in college, so I just had to make sure I answered those tough questions.”

    “Just kinda some of the questions I was asked, just trying to open up about myself,” he continued. “I’d never really have opened up about myself like, just trying to talk to everybody and stuff like that. Just trying to open up and make sure that everybody knows exactly who I am.”

    If the Patriots were asking him about a specific incident, it’s not one that’s been made public. He was never suspended or otherwise disciplined by the program openly. At the same time, Combine interviews involving all 32 teams are known to be relatively prying, and it’s not uncommon for players to come away with similar observations.

  • Emmanuel Forbes Jr., Mississippi State

    Sep 10, 2022; Tucson, Arizona, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs cornerback Emmanuel Forbes (13) against the Arizona Wildcats at Arizona Stadium. Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    Sep 10, 2022; Tucson, Arizona, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs cornerback Emmanuel Forbes (13) against the Arizona Wildcats at Arizona Stadium. Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    There are few if any cornerbacks in this class that can match Forbes’ production, both in 2022 and for their entire careers. Forbes had six interceptions in 2022 – returning three for touchdowns. He also broke up 10 passes. In his career, he had 14 picks and 20 pass breakups in three years for the Bulldogs, with six pick-sixes.

    Granted, some of those interceptions are circumstantial, but there’s something to be said at the cornerback position for having a knack to be in the right place at the right time.

    Less of a lockdown corner and more of a ballhawk, Forbes is currently projected to go later in the first round. His play style is somewhat similar to J.C. Jackson’s, who of course had tremendous success in New England.

  • Non-first-round corners

    Dec 31, 2022; New Orleans, LA, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide defensive back Eli Ricks (7) tackles Kansas State Wildcats wide receiver Malik Knowles (4) during the first half in the 2022 Sugar Bowl at Caesars Superdome. Credit: Andrew Wevers-USA TODAY Sports

    Dec 31, 2022; New Orleans, LA, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide defensive back Eli Ricks (7) tackles Kansas State Wildcats wide receiver Malik Knowles (4) during the first half in the 2022 Sugar Bowl at Caesars Superdome. Credit: Andrew Wevers-USA TODAY Sports

    The Patriots also met with two cornerbacks who aren’t projected to go in the first round – Eli Ricks from Alabama and Jay Ward from LSU.

    Ricks is actually an LSU transfer, who was a preseason All-American for the Tide. He didn’t play up to that level in 2022, but may be seen by some as a value pick on Day 2.

    Ward played cornerback for the Tigers, but is projected as a hybrid corner/safety at the next level thanks in part to his willingness to deliver (big) hits. He’s projected to go early on Day 3.

  • For more info on these players and a full list of Patriots pre-draft meetings, check out our meeting tracker here.

  • Alex Barth is a writer and 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. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarth or via email at abarth@985TheSportsHub.com.

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