The New England Patriots are entering the 2022 campaign with some question marks at cornerback. In recent seasons, the Patriots possessed an unquestioned superstar on the boundary. The overall state of the position changed once J.C. Jackson signed with the Los Angeles Chargers in free agency. Jackson’s departure unearthed some uncertainties in their defensive backfield. The picture became a bit clearer earlier this week.
Veteran Malcolm Butler was placed on season-ending injured reserve on Tuesday. The Patriots’ Super Bowl XLIX hero, Butler won’t enjoy a comeback story for the ages in 2022. The 32-year-old Butler had looked like he lost a step throughout training camp practices, and wasn’t guaranteed to make the Patriots’ final roster anyway. Fellow cornerback JoeJuan Williams was also placed on season-ending injured reserve. Williams was on the roster bubble himself.
Butler and Williams weren’t going to start, but these moves have added clarity to the impending outcome nonetheless. Jalen Mills appears to be the in-house favorite to become New England’s most formidable cornerback. Mills is a returning starter, and the Patriots are high on him internally. Mills earned a middling coverage grade of 63.4 on 526 coverage snaps last season, per Pro Football Focus. Mills will be faced with the tall task of squaring off with the likes of Stefon Diggs, Tyreek Hill, and Jaylen Waddle within his own division alone. Jackson and his 17 interceptions over the previous two seasons leave a sizable void behind. Mills has massive shoes to fill.
Somewhat of a surprise starter is emerging opposite Mills on the boundary. That vacated position has been filled by Jonathan Jones throughout the majority of offseason practices. The 5-foot-10, 190-pound Jones has primarily played in the slot since arriving in Foxboro ahead of the 2016 campaign as an undrafted free agent out of Auburn. Jones’ career snap count at the nickel position is 1,799 versus just 399 snaps on the outside, via PFF. His projection to the boundary is just that, more projection than a confident outcome.
Jones’ apparent move outside means the Patriots will have a new nickel cornerback in 2022. There are a few contenders vying for that spot. The more notable one is rookie cornerback Marcus Jones. The No. 85 overall selection in the 2022 NFL Draft, the undersized Jones makes up for his lack of ideal measurables with sharp instincts. At Houston, Jones was a playmaker with tremendous quickness, elite speed, and fluid hips. Jones may be the wildcard of this group. His ability to contribute immediately would raise the performance floor.
Jones is facing competition from Myles Bryant. A third-year undrafted free agent out of Washington, Bryant has consistently impressed the Patriots’ coaching staff. In 2021, Bryant appeared in a career-high 12 contests while recording 41 total tackles, three pass breakups, and one interception. Bryant has the benefit of playing under New England’s coaching staff for three consecutive seasons, whereas Jones is still learning the system and endearing himself to the likes of Bill Belichick. The competition remains fluid.
The position group should be rounded out by a mixture of veterans, reclamation projects, and first-year players. Terrance Michell is entering his ninth professional season and his first with the Patriots after appearing in 14 contests with the Houston Texans a year ago. Shaun Wade has picked up steam with recent standout showings. Once considered a top prospect coming out of Ohio State, Wade may be finding his footing after washing out of Baltimore as a fifth-round selection in 2021. And last but not least is hard-nosed fourth-round draft pick Jack Jones, who was drafted just 36 selections after the aforementioned Marcus Jones. The Patriots were wise to double down at cornerback given the state of the depth chart, but it will take some time before these selections pay full dividends.
New England truly possesses a starless collection of corners. Long gone are the days of Jackson and Stephon Gilmore. The Patriots are ultimately playing a dangerous game with an ever-important position in today’s pass-happy league, particularly in a conference that’s loaded with elite quarterbacks and wide receivers. The picture has become clearer via recent transactions and practice reps, but the overarching questions remain in place, and can only be answered once actual football begins.