Overview: Coming off a Pro Bowl and All-Pro season, Stephon Gilmore has not only established himself as New England’s No. 1 corner and top defender, but as arguably one of the top cover men in the game today. He leads a cornerback position that blends age, experience and youthful potential as an expected strength of the Patriots defense.
Players (season #): Stephon Gilmore (8), Jason McCourty (11), J.C. Jackson (2), Jonathan Jones (4), Joejuan Williams (R), Duke Dawson (2), Keion Crossen (2), Ken Webster (R), D’Angelo Ross (R)
Coaching: After four seasons as a coaching assistant in New England, Mike Pellegrino elevates to cornerbacks coach for the 2019 season. Pellegrino, who spent time playing Major League Lacrosse while working as a coaching assistant, replaces Josh Boyer, who moved on to the same role in Miami on Brian Flores’ staff after coaching the Patriots cornerbacks for the last seven years.
Competition: The entirety of a cornerback group that improved as the season wore on a year ago en route to a Super Bowl title returns to bring stability to the defense. Gilmore is the focal point of the back end, one of the top man-to-man coverage corners in the NFL. The battle for the other starting job faces veteran Jason McCourty – who got $5 million guaranteed to re-sign this offseason – against second-year former undrafted rookie J.C. Jackson. McCourty started 12 of 16 games played a year ago and then all three postseason contests, but Jackson clearly has the higher upside in terms of long term developmental potential. Either is a solid option, and given New England’s game-plan style of defense each could get starting nods based on matchups during the regular season. The competition for playing time in the slot could be more heated, with veteran Jonathan Jones, second-year second-round pick Duke Dawson and rookie second-round pick Joejuan Williams in the mix. Dawson did virtually nothing a year ago, spending 10 games on IR before being a healthy scratch the rest of the season. He has a lot to prove in training camp and the preseason if he’s to unseat Jones, a key contributor on special teams who got a $3.09 million restricted free agent tender this offseason. Williams is a unique option given his 6-3, 208-pound frame, likely more of a matchup player in certain packages to open his career than an every-down player. Keion Crossen, one of the fastest players on the team, is a wild card given his raw potential and contributions in the kicking game.
Prediction: Gilmore, McCourty and Jackson are all roster locks. As second-round picks, both Dawson and Williams are almost certainly going to be with the team in some form or fashion. Crossen’s development – he was drafted almost solely based on his workout speed coming out of West Carolina – and viability in the kicking game will key his role and future. If Jones isn’t seen as a top-5 cornerback at this point, he certainly could be a trade candidate later in camp, assuming the rest of the group stays healthy. Either way, there is a pretty impressive mix of proven veteran talent and young potential at cornerback heading toward 2019.