The final installment of my roster evaluation focuses on the Defensive Backs. This is an overall strong unit with Devin McCourty and Stephon Gilmore leading the way. Pro Football Focus ranked them #5 in the league. However, if one or the other were missing (injury or contract issues) then the depth will be tested, and from what we saw last year, not ready for prime time.
Devin McCourty – Entering his 12th season in the NFL, the veteran Free Safety is the glue that keeps the secondary together. The former 1st round pick in the 2010 draft out of Rutgers converted from CB to Safety and has been a stalwart ever since. In 2011, McCourty was named a Captain and has been ever since. That attests to his leadership skill. The young players look up to him and his three Super Bowl rings. McCourty has been very durable over his career missing just 5 games and playing in all 16 games the last 5 consecutive years. The concern is his age. McCourty will turn 34 before the start of the season. We will watch to see if McCourty has lost a step in pre-season. I would not be surprised if this is his final year in the NFL. Presently the Patriots have no clear backup at the Free Safety position.
Stephon Gilmore – Good news is that Gilmore reported on time for the Pre-season Training Camp. The bad news is that he has been designated as Physically Unable to Play (PUP). Gilmore is recovering from a thigh injury. The injury may have kept him out of OTAs and Mini-Camp, but the real reason is his unhappiness with his contract. In 2017 the Patriots signed the then Unrestricted Free Agent to a $65M contract with $31M guaranteed and an $18M signing bonus. This made Gilmore one of the highest-paid Defensive Backs in the league. He is in his last year of the front-loaded contract he signed and the value is only $7M. He compares what he is getting to other DBs and he is now ranked something like 13th in the league for the former Defensive Player of the Year. The two sides have been talking and it appears as if something will get done. The fact he is in camp is a great sign. What can you say about one of the premier shut-down corners in the league? Gilmore helped the Pats win the Super Bowl in 2018 shutting down the Rams. In 2019 he was AP Defensive Player of the League. Durability was not an issue until last year when he missed 5 games. During the season Gilmore will turn 31. He is a 4 time Pro Bowl selection, 2-time All-Pro and he tied for the league lead in interception in 2019, the year he won Defensive MVP. Gilmore blankets the best receiver of the opposition, which allows for defensive flexibility for the remainder.
JC Jackson – The former UnDrafted Free Agent who signed a three-year deal worth $1.72M and a $10K Signing Bonus after the 2018 draft. Jackson was a highly recruited recruit at Florida who hurt his shoulder his freshman year and redshirted for that season. He was charged with armed robbery and was acquitted of those charges. The damage was already done and he left Florida. He signed with Riverside Community College but had all kinds of D1 interest. Eventually, he enrolled at Maryland and played the next two seasons. He declared for the draft, forgoing his last year of eligibility (a mistake). NFL teams didn’t forget his troubles at Florida and passed on drafting him. Their loss and the Patriots gain. BB signed him to a three-year contract. Jackson is a ball-hawk. He has 15 career interceptions, many of which he undercuts the receiver. Jackson was called upon to be the number 1 CB when Gilmore was out and he didn’t fare as well as he did covering the secondary receivers. The Pats offered him a Restricted Free-Agent, 2nd round tender, which amounted to $3.384M. He signed the one-year offer. He will be an Unrestricted Free Agent next year. His 9 INTs last season were second to only Xavier Howards 10 for the league lead.
Kyle Dugger – Lenoir-Rhymes, it runs off your tongue as one of the premier football factories in college football … NOT. That is where Dugger played. DII Lenoir-Rhymes in North Carolina. Only three schools recruited him out of high school, one was DII, one was D III, and the third an NAIA school. By his senior year in college, everyone at the D II level knew his name. He once returned two punts for TD’s within a 7 minute stretch of time. He was named the Cliff Harris Award winner for the best small-school defensive back in 2019. That got him a shot at the Senior Bowl at which he made the most of his time in practice, dominating the D I receivers he faced. He was one of the practice players of the week. Bill Belichick noticed as the 2020 Senior Bowl is one of the few if any he had attended in person in the last 20 years. At the combine, Dugger measured in at 6’1”, 217 lbs, and ran a 4.51 40. His vertical leap of 42” was the best of any secondary player and his 11’ 1” Broad jump was third. The Broadjump measures his explosiveness. The Patriots traded out of the first round and into the 2nd round and took Dugger with their 1st selection Round 2 pick 37. Dugger was my draft binky last year and I was hoping that the Patriots would do exactly what they did, trade back and take Dugger. I was afraid BB would not take a chance on a D II player. His selection was bold and it paid off. In 2020, he played in 14 of 16 games for the Pats and accrued 61 tackles as a mostly in-the-box safety. To play in 14 games as a rookie, coming from D II is quite the accomplishment. I expect big things from Dugger as he makes that big leap in his second season.
Jonathan Jones – Another Undrafted Free Agent, Jones enters his 6th season with the Patriots. Primarily the slot corner, Jones has excelled at covering the opposition’s slot receiver. These are players that are extremely quick and have multiple moves to get open. Jones sticks to them like glue. Last season was Jones best as he upped his tackle total for the season to 74, his career-best. That’s an increase of 20 tackles over his previous high. It also represents the standard defense is now the Nickel with 5 Defensive backs. Jones has proven to be very durable the past 5 seasons, only missing one game. Not known as a ballhawk, Jones chipped in with 2 Interceptions last year. At 5’10” 190 lbs, the Auburn product ran an official 4.33 40 yard dash (un-official 4.28) and pumped 19 reps of 225#s in the Bench Press. That is exceptionally strong for a CB. Many think he may eventually replace McCourty at Safety. Pro Football Focus has him rated as the 10th best Defensive back in reception allowed. Jones is vastly underrated and unquestionably the best Cornerback 3 in the league. This starting 5 is one of the best secondaries in the league.
Adrian Phillips Played the hybrid Linebacker in the Dime package. This resulted in 97 tackles of which 64 were solo tackles. The 2020 Free Agent acquisition from San Diego was a key contributor to the Patriots defense. I see Phillips playing a similar role this season. The 29 yo Safety/ LB stands 5’ 11”, 210 lbs. A Texas Longhorn, Phillips ran 4.58 40 and 7.10 3 cone drill at his Pro Day. The Patriots tend to give Undrafted Free Agents an honest tryout. Although they didn’t sign Phillips originally, he was a UDFA signee of San Diego in 2014. Entering this season, the veteran has 7 accrued seasons in the NFL. Phillips played in all 16 games last year, bouncing back from an injury-plagued 2019.
Jalen Mills Was a surprise signing in the Free Agent market. Entering the season, the biggest question is whether or not Stephon Gilmore would be on the team when the season started. It appears the Mills signing is for protection should Gilmore not be here. Last season the Eagles played Mills at safety. His combine time in the 40 was a pedestrian 4.61. At his Pro Day, he lowered that number to 4.48. He also had an excellent 3-cone drill time of 6.86. At LSU, he played all 13 games as a true freshman, 13 more as a sophomore, and his junior seasons. However, he had a broken ankle and ligament damage that limited him to 7 games as a Senior. Many projected him to be drafted as high as the 2nd round but he fell all the way to the 7th. His best season for Philadelphia was the 2017 Super Bowl Championship season when Mills had 64 tackles and 3 Interceptions. The last two seasons have been injury-plagued which made Mills expendable. His nickname is the Green Goblin, after the Spiderman Villain. This is because Mills dyed his hair green. I would be surprised to see a repeat of this with the Patriots. Mills signed a 4 year, $24M contract and it would appear he would be the heir apparent to Devin McCourty. Let’s see how he plays before coronate him as the starting Free Safety.
D’Angelo Ross Was signed as a UDFA after the 2019 draft. He was put on IR and waived at the final cut down. Immediately signed to the Practice Squad for the 2019 season. In 2020 he again was cut and signed to Practice Squad where he sat until the final game of the season versus the Jets. He was not active for the game and after the game, he reverted back to the Practice Squad. The New Mexico product signed a futures contract for 2021. The 5’ 8” 190 lb CB must have impressed the coaches to be signed two years in a row and then invited to camp for a third. He faces an uphill battle for a spot in the talented secondary.
Myles Bryant Surprised everyone in camp last year, making the team out of training camp. The Washington product was known for his coverage skills coming out of the Pac 10. At the combine, he ran a disappointing 4.62 40 (he was expected to run 4.5). The Patriots emphasized the 3-cone drill for DBs and WRs, and Bryant ran a very good 6.86. This showed his change of direction skills. Bryant appeared in 7 games last year, recording 11 tackles. Some of those appearances included playing at Safety, which I think will be his best position. I think he will make the team again, especially with the ability to play both the slot corner and safety.
Jojuan Williams This is a make-or-break season for Williams. In the 2019 draft the Patriots traded up at the cost of their 2nd and 3rd Round picks to take Williams. At 6’3.5” 212 lbs, Williams was expected to cover some of the bigger receivers in the league. He has yet to show the promise of being selected so high. In 2019 he saw action in 9 games on Special Teams but was a healthy inactive for 7 games. Special teams were once again his specialty in 2020, finishing with 12 tackles, 6 in the final game versus Jets. At Vanderbilt in the SEC, he played all 13 games as a true freshman. Finished his career with 119 tackles, 4 interceptions, and 30 Pass Break Ups. At the combine, he ran a disappointing 4.6 but his 3-cone of 6.92 was under the threshold of 7 the Patriots desire. It was hoped he would be able to cover TE’s with his large frame, but we haven’t seen that to date. He will be one to watch this training camp to see if he has improved and nail down a position on the team. As of now, he is on the bubble to make the team.
Dee Virgin Is going into his 4th season after spending his 1st year on the HOU Practice Squad and the next three with DET as a Practice Squad player in 2018 and 2020. In 2019 he played in 15 games on special teams with just 2 career tackles. The former West Alabama star is 5’9” 185lbs. He signed with the Patriots for the last game of the 2020 season (Jets) but was a healthy inactive. He played for former Patriots coaches Bill O’Brien and Matt Patricia. His role will be the same on the Patriots as a depth player for the Special Teams. I don’t see any value in his skills as a DB and therefore will not be making the team unless there is an injury to one of the core special team players.
Joshuah Bledsoe was drafted by the Patriots in the 6th round in the 2021 Draft. I did not like this draft pick. Bledsoe is too slow to play safety in the NFL. I understand he has a reputation as a hard hitter, but if you can’t catch up to the league’s speed, you are not going to hit anybody! Bledsoe will start the pre-season on the Non-Football Injury list. At Missouri the 5’11”, 204 lb safety played in-the-box Safety and excels in an aggressive downhill run-stopping style. He is good on underneath routes but doesn’t have the change of direction skills to cover in man-to-man. There are no pro day or combine numbers for Bledsoe. He was exposed at the Senior Bowl practices by the elite WR’s. He has too many TDs to targets over the 2020 season. Plays well on Special Teams. If he is going to make the team it will be on Special Teams. I believe the final three draft picks the Patriots chose were like taking Un-Drafted Free Agents. The Patriots had exhausted their list of players they would draft, and these players were taken rather than have to compete to sign them after the draft.
Michael Jackson Has the rare combination of size and speed. At 6’ 1” 210 lbs he ran a 4.45 40 at the combine. The Miami product also jumped 40.5” in the vertical and had a 7.12 in the 3-cone drill. He has had a rocky start to his career, signing as a 5th Round selection by Dallas in 2019. He didn’t make the final cut but joined the Cowboys Practice Squad for 8 games before Detroit plucked him for their 53 man roster. He played a limited role in one game for the Lions. In 2020 the Patriots made a Pre-season trade with Detroit for unspecified compensation. Jackson played well in pre-season but didn’t make the team. He was signed by NE late in September for the Practice Squad and was activated for the last game versus the Jets. Jackson has the size and speed to play Safety which could be to his advantage. He will have a hard time making the team.
Adrian Colbert The 4-year veteran has bounced around the NFL going from starting Free Safety in SF to Practice Squad for three teams. Colbert, nicknamed “the Punisher” accumulated 33 games played, 19 starts, and 93 tackles. The Patriots signed him in May 2021. The 6’2” 205 University of Miami product ran a 4.48 40 at the combine. That was good enough to make him a 7th round selection by San Francisco. By the end of his rookie year, he was the starting Free Safety. In 2018 he was the starter for 8 games until a high ankle sprain put him on IR. Last season for the NYG he played well but then injured his shoulder and was put on IR. He returned for the final game. I want to see what he can bring to the table. A hard-hitting veteran safety could make the team, but it will be a dogfight for that last position. That last position usually goes to a player with Special Teams skills. So far I haven’t seen that Colbert plays Special Teams.
I included Cody Davis in the Special Team position analysis. However, he can play safety if needed. In college, Davis was a terrific Safety at Texas Tech. The 4-year starter racked up 362 total tackles including 101 as a Senior. Davis may allow the team to keep only 3 true safeties on the final 53 man roster.
Why hasn’t there been a bigger outcry about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ hiding the fact that Tom Brady had an injured MCL all season? The injury was serious enough that he had surgery during the off-season. If that was the Patriots we would be losing draft picks! With that said, Brady had an even more remarkable season if his MCL was torn.
Next Up – 5 Things to Watch in Camp
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