The Patriots begin training camp in less than a week and have many intriguing decisions to make at several positions on the roster. With 90 players on the current roster, many of them will be truly competing for roster slots and reps and are not just camp bodies.
The defense was much maligned in 2017 and there looks to be several different faces on the field from the team that played in the Super Bowl. Among them is the cornerback position. Malcolm Butler left via free agency to the Tennessee Titans after being benched for the Super Bowl. Jonathan Bademosi in now in Houston.
The team drafted Duke Dawson and Keion Crossen in the 2018 NFL Draft. They also brought in the intriguing rookie J.C. Jackson as a UDFA this spring. Jackson had a strong spring but now will have to prove it again once the pads come on. With several veterans and rookies, 11 players in all vying for probably six roster spots, reps will be valuable and possibly limited for some. This will be a fun position to watch next week.
So, with that in mind who is locked in and who is on the bubble?
Roster Locks- Cornerback: Stephon Gilmore, Eric Rowe, Duke Dawson
The team paid big bucks for Gilmore last season in free agency and after a little bit of a shaky start where he was struggling to find a comfort level, he quickly turned it around. Gilmore was the Patriots best corner, by far down the stretch and into the playoffs last year. His diving play, knocking the ball away on a 4th down against the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC Championship Game, sealed the deal and sent the Patriots to the Super Bowl.
He followed that up with a stellar spring where he blanketed whoever was assigned to him to cover. Gilmore is locked in as the team’s starting left corner and they’ll be in good shape with him out there for the next few years.
Rowe has the size (6’1,205) they like to match up with bigger wide receivers and will vie for the starting spot opposite Gilmore. He has the versatility to play outside or in the slot, although with the players they’ve brought in, it seems they are intent on keeping Rowe on the perimeter.
Dawson was the team’s 2nd Round (56th Overall) selection in the 2018 NFL Draft. The Patriots have scouted him for quite some time and like the versatility for the soft-spoken corner. He can play on the perimeter, in the slot and even some safety. But given his size, 5’10, 202, he’s shorter but very stocky, he may be best suited for the slot.
Near Roster Locks: Jason McCourty, Jonathan Jones
The Patriots brought in McCourty from Cleveland and after trying a few years to land the twin brother of Pats safety Devin, they’ve finally got their man. He was thought to be in the mix for the starting job immediately but then in the spring he barely played. Was it a nagging injury or something else? We’ll have to see. But I think he will stick and play a key role.
Jonathan Jones played valuable snaps in the slot last season and generally fared well when he was on the field. He played sparingly in 2016 but then parlayed that into nearly 50 percent of the defensive snaps a year ago while being a regular valuable contributor on Special Teams.
He was hurt late in the year with an ankle injury that landed him on IR and the Patriots really missed him in the slot especially in the Super Bowl where they were gashed by the Eagles.
He missed all of the spring workouts and I have a sneaking suspicion that he’ll begin training camp on PUP.
On the Bubble: Cyrus Jones, Jomal Wiltz, JC Jackson, Ryan Lewis
The Patriots used their top pick a couple of years ago on Cyrus Jones who, it was thought would be an immediate contributor on defense as well as in the punt return game. Neither happened as he struggled all season with fielding kicks cleanly.
He tore an ACL and meniscus during preseason last year and was placed on IR. In Year 3, he’s running out of time to show something. Unfortunately for him, he may not be ready to go either, missing all of the spring workouts and may begin camp on PUP.
The Patriots picked up Wiltz last season and he spent the entire season on the practice squad. He could be in line for a big jump in Year 2 but we’ll have to see if he can turn some heads in camp.
Jackson may be this season’s UDFA steal. He had a pretty impressive spring and earned reps next to Gilmore and went against the likes of Edelman, Hogan and the other starters. He looked strong and feisty and competed hard on every snap.
With the two Jones possibly on PUP, it may open the door a crack for the former Maryland corner to find his way onto the roster if he can continue his strong play.
Lewis is a very intriguing player. Undrafted last spring, he went thru camp with the Cardinals and played well. He was cut, signed to the Arizona practice squad and released on September 12. The Patriots signed him the next day to their practice squad.
Buffalo attempted to sign him off the practice squad to their 53-man roster but the Patriots convinced him to stay by paying him the salary of an active roster player. That speaks volumes about what the team thinks of him.
He’s certainly athletic, at his pro day in March 2017, Lewis ran a 4.37-second 40-yard dash with a 6.87-second 3-cone, 35-inch vertical leap, 10-foot, 8-inch broad jump and 4.34-second short shuttle. Those are all impressive numbers. With a strong second season, he too could force his way onto the roster.
Outside Looking in… Long Shots: Keion Crossen, AJ Moore
Without any untold injuries, it is hard to envision either the athletic Crossen or Moore making the roster at this point. Unless they have a fantastic summer. But it is strictly a numbers crunch. There are only so many reps to go around. Both are candidates for the practice squad. But crazier things have happened. Malcolm Butler was another one of those real longshots to make the roster and he’s now cashing in Tennessee.