New England Patriots 53-man 2018 Roster Projection v1.0: Cornerback

FOXBOROUGH, MA - JANUARY 21: Stephon Gilmore
FOXBOROUGH, MA - JANUARY 21: Stephon Gilmore /

As we get closer to the start of the 2018 season, here is how the New England Patriots might look at the corner back position in our early roster preview.

Part seven for the New England Patriots moved on to the defense with a look at the surprising depth at the defensive line position, the continuing quest for pass rush help at defensive end and edge rusher position, and some new players at the interior linebacker position.

Part ten of 12 continues with a look at the deep and athletic cornerback position:


Starter(s): Stephon Gilmore, Jason McCourty

Back-up(s): Duke Dawson, Eric Rowe, Jonathan Jones, Ryan Lewis

Roster Bubble Boy(s): Cyrus Jones, Jomal Wiltz, J.C. Jackson, Keion Crossen, A.J. Moore


Cornerback was probably one of the most talked about positions after the Super Bowl when starter Malcolm Butler spent the entire game on the sidelines after leading the defense having played 1,037 regular season snaps. Since that game, the consensus media opinion has been that the Patriots lost the Super Bowl due to not playing Butler.

However, he also did not play well against Jacksonville blowing coverages and some questionable effort on certain plays. The Patriots clearly planned to have Eric Rowe and Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe deal with the Eagles’ big outside receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith. Jeffery beat Rowe for an early touchdown but was shut down by Gilmore after the team switched Gilmore into coverage on him. Smith did not have a big impact in the game either.

Who hurt New England in the passing game in the Super Bowl were slot receiver Nelson Agholor, running back Corey Clement, and tight end Zach Ertz who combined for 20 receptions for 251 yards and two touchdowns. Remember, this was the same plan they used in Super Bowl 51 with Rowe and Logan Ryan outside against Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu. Butler was in the slot matched with Taylor Gabriel and was burnt for two big plays of 24 and 35 yards in that game.

The Patriots are solid with Gilmore–who was their best cornerback in the second-half of 2017 and in the playoffs–and a combination of Rowe and Jason McCourty who was scooped up for next-to-nothing in a trade with Cleveland. This trio can defend multi-receiver formations and gives New England options in match-ups. McCourty actually outperformed Butler last season and could be seen as a less expensive upgrade.

What hurt New England in the Super Bowl was the loss of nickel cornerback Jonathan Jones. Jones, an undrafted free agent in 2016 who played special teams primarily as a rookie, was a revelation playing in the slot. The Patriots tried Rowe and Butler in the slot in the regular season and both struggled in the role. Jones, per, was third in the NFL in “Lowest Catch Rates Allowed in Slot Coverage” behind Patrick Robinson and Chris Harris Jr. and just ahead of Kendall Fuller.

Jones was lost to an ankle injury late in the game against Tennessee in the Divisional Playoff round and missed the rest of the playoffs. His loss was probably more important in the Super Bowl than choosing not to play Butler. The Patriots had already lost slot cornerback and 2016 second round draft pick Cyrus Jones in the preseason and lacked a strong slot coverage option trying Jonathan Bademosi and safeties Patrick Chung and Jordan Richards in the Super Bowl.

To address the depth in the slot, the Patriots turned to the draft grabbing Florida’s Duke Dawson in the second round. Dawson fits the mold of New England cornerbacks in that he is extremely physical and versatile. He can play outside against smaller and quicker wide receivers and inside in the slot. His best ability is locking receivers within five yards of the line of scrimmage and staying with them in the middle of the field.

Roster Battle:

The top five cornerbacks seem to be set and there is likely only room for one more cornerback out of the group of Cyrus Jones, Jomal Wiltz, J.C. Jackson, Keion Crossen, A.J. Moore and Ryan Lewis. Jones, as a second round draft pick would seem to have the inside track. However, his first two years ended with him on injured reserve and when he was on the field he struggled mightily.

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Jomal Wiltz is an undersized burner who originally was with Philadelphia in training camp last year and was on the New England practice squad most of the season. A.J. Moore is an undrafted free agent who played nickel cornerback at Ole Miss. Another undrafted free agent is J.C. Jackson who is a smaller cornerback who left Florida due to off-field troubles and ended up in Maryland.

Jackson made headlines as he was running with the first team defense during the OTAs this past week. He is still a long-shot, but it highlights the big school talent he has. Jackson is gritty and has good athleticism and Wiltz, Moore and Jackson are all likely competing with the Joneses and Dawson for two slot cornerback positions on the roster.

Seventh round draft pick Keion Crossen and 2017 practice squad cornerback Ryan Lewis are the two most intriguing cornerbacks fighting for the sixth cornerback on the roster. Lewis was the focus of a Doug Kyed profile earlier this year highlighting the Pitt cornerback’s pedigree and off-the-chart athleticism. He was paid a full salary to stay on the practice squad and won the “Patriot of the Year” award (whatever that actually is).

Keion Crossen comes from small school Western Carolina bringing with him athleticism and speed. Crossen is a developmental project who is just five-foot-nine and 178 pounds. He needs to work on his technique and learn to play inside. He played outside at Western Carolina and will be a player to watch in the preseason.

Next: 3 Reasons why Gronk should not be traded

Final Word:

I’ll buy into the Ryan Lewis hype and add him from the jumble of cornerbacks to put him as the sixth corner in 2018 heading into training camp. The top five cornerbacks are likely set with Gilmore, Rowe, McCourty, Dawson and Jonathan Jones. Cyrus Jones should be the favorite but prior draft position means nothing to head coach Bill Belichick when it is time to pick the best 53 players to fit the roster.