The Patriots have several significant needs this offseason and the New England Football Journal is breaking down each one. This installment is about cornerback, a position that has traditionally been strong for New England but that currently has a missing piece.
The Patriots have a strong defensive back group overall. Kyle Dugger is an emerging star at safety and Jack Jones and Marcus Jones made an impact as rookies. If Devin McCourty returns, the Patriots will also once again have a free safety in the top third of the league. Jalen Mills has been a solid if unspectacular player and Adrian Phillips has been a stalwart presence as a third safety. Jonathan Jones is an excellent cover corner, but is a free agent. The one ingredient missing is an outside corner with length that can play tight man coverage and win at the catch point.
The Patriots two starting outside corners this season were Mills and Jonathan Jones. Mills is 6’0”, but his 31 1/8-inch arm length was in only the 36th percentile of defensive backs in his draft class. He is quick, but his downfield recovery speed is not as good as most corners. Mills was solid against the run. This adds up to an average to above average corner whose best fit is at number two corner or safety. Jones is a terrific athlete and great in coverage, but at 5’10” and 30 ¼ inch arms he gave several inches to Stefon Diggs (6’0”) and Justin Jefferson (6’1”). Obviously, both of those players are great receivers and were going to make some plays anyway, but Jones was at a disadvantage due to the height difference and shorter arms. Jones is an elite slot corner; his best fit would be in the slot, but he could also be a free safety replacement for Devin McCourty thanks to his elite instincts and speed.
New England has several great options to improve their length at outside corner. One is the free agency route; the best player available is Tampa Bay Buccaneers corner Jamel Dean. Dean is 6’1” and 205 pounds. His length and wingspan are not elite, but both are longer than the current Patriots starters. He is also an excellent cover corner who can play man or zone coverage. He had two interceptions last season and at 26 years old he still has good years ahead of him. In addition to Dean, other free agent options include James Bradberry, Rock Ya-Sin and Patrick Peterson.
A trade for Jalen Ramsey has been rumored, but Ramsey was inconsistent in coverage in 2022 and would potentially cost as much if not more than Ya-Sin, Dean and Bradberry. Ramsey would not be a bad option, but there are some better fits available.
In the draft, there are a plethora of potentially high quality outside corners that will be available on day one and day two. Some names to watch are Devon Witherspoon, Joey Porter Jr., Christian Gonzalez, Kelee Ringo, Eli Ricks and Emmanuel Forbes.
The Patriots have a strong secondary and are one good, long outside corner away from being one of the best units in the league. Without filling that need, the Patriots secondary will continue to be good but not have an answer for bigger, elite receivers.