Jun 8, 2022; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler (4) during the New England Patriots minicamp at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports
Favorites: Jalen Mills
In contention: Malcolm Butler, Terrance Mitchell, Jack Jones
Dark horse: Justin Bethel, Shaun Wade, Joejuan Williams
When we talk about cornerbacks in the modern NFL, it really is two positions. There are ‘boundary’ cornerbacks, which are the players that usually come to mind first come to mind when talking about the general position. These are the guys who play mainly outside the numbers and are generally bigger more ball-hawk-type players. With the rise of slot receivers over the last 15-ish years, there’s naturally been a rise in ‘slot’ corners, who specialize in covering those players. Of course, there are players who can and do play both spots as well.
Heading into camp, boundary cornerback may be the most wide open position on the Patriots’ roster, as well as the key position battle. With the losses of Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson, there’s been a reset with that group.
On top of that, the Patriots generally like to rotate a third boundary cornerback during a game to keep players fresh (like they did with Jason McCourty). With that, there’s multiple spots to be won at this position.
Jalen Mills right now is the heavy favorite to be the top player in the rotation. He had a bounce-back year in his first year with the Patriots in 2021, after moving to safety towards the end of his time in Philly. If he could take another step in his second year in the system, that would be a major development for the secondary and the defense as a whole.
After Mills, the picture gets a little more cloudy. Malcolm Butler looked like a solid rotational cornerback, but that was two years ago. He’s not only coming off a year away from the game, but he’s also 32 years old. Cornerback is a position where father time can come quickly – only five cornerbacks over the age of 32 have played 10 or more games over the last two seasons.
Uncertainty doesn’t only apply to one end of the age spectrum though. Another contender for a rotational spot is rookie fourth-round pick Jack Jones. Jones’ performance this spring stood out, spring boarding him into the conversation. Still, he hasn’t covered NFL receivers at full speed yet, so there’s a few more boxes to check before he’s locked into a role.
Terrance Mitchell is the in the group with Butler and Jones competing for the second and third spots. The 30-year-old has shown growth over the last two seasons with the Browns and Texans, but his ceiling isn’t as high as the other two players.
This battle continues beyond those top three spots though, as the team will be looking for depth as well. Special teamer Justin Bethel’s natural position is cornerback, and he’s pitched in at times over the past two years. He could be asked to do so again in 2022.
Shaun Wade projects best as a slot cornerback, but does have experience on the outside. With the depth ahead of him in the slot, he could work his way into the mix on the boundary to get more reps.
Then there’s 2019 second-round pick Joejuan Williams. Outside of being used as an occasional tight end stopper in 2020, Williams hasn’t been able to find a role on defense with the Patriots in his three seasons in Foxborough – especially while he was buried behind tremendous cornerback depth. That’s no longer the case, and as he enters a contract year he’ll have his best chance yet to compete for and win a job.