Why Patriots' quest for "No. 1 corner" should wait until later in 2023 NFL Draft


It'd be rash to be too sure of what the Patriots will and won't do in the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft. Years like last year remind us of that.

But while precedents are made to be challenged at some point, something the Patriots did in the draft last season might be instructive for what they'll do this time around at a key position.

After a whole pre-draft process in which fans and pundits heavily predicted New England to take a cornerback in the first round to counteract the passing-game firepower within the division, Bill Belichick had a chance to take second-tier cornerbacks like Trent McDuffie or Kaiir Elam with the 21st overall pick in the 2022 draft.

They passed, trading down to 29th overall and allowing McDuffie to go to the Chiefs at No. 21 and Elam to go to the Bills at No. 23.

No matter, though: at pick No. 29, they were in perfect position to draft Clemson's Andrew Booth Jr.

Or they could just take guard Cole Strange with that pick instead…which is what they did.

Now, there could be more than one reason they chose that route, including the fact that none of the McDuffie-Elam-Booth trio had four years of experience in college football -- something that matters very much to the Patriots with their top picks.

But perhaps there's another simple reason for this approach: they just don't think they need to spend first-round picks to find cornerbacks that can help them win. After all, they've only ever taken one first-round cornerback (Devin McCourty) under Belichick.

Contrary to how it felt, last year by and large made that approach look sound.

The Jones brothers (Jonathan, Jack and Marcus), along with Myles Bryant and Jalen Mills, largely held their own in pass coverage despite being undersized and lacking in high-end talent.

Of course, those two factors did end up hurting the Patriots corner group against Justin Jefferson and top pass-catching crews like the Bills and Bengals. So there's no pretending they can't improve.

But this idea that New England's lack of a prototypical man-coverage corner -- 6-2, long arms, lockdown potential -- is crippling the defense simply doesn't appear to be an opinion the team shares. Additionally, an advanced statistics look at the Patriots' depth chart via Sports Info Solutions shows the team's projected outside cornerbacks -- Jonathan and Jack Jones -- are actually the strongest positional duo among the defense's potential starters.

If anything, it's slot cornerback, where Myles Bryant has struggled, that is a bigger issue than the outside play, even with some of the worse games against elite receivers.

That would seem to suggest a top-15 pick at cornerback isn't nearly as necessary as looking for help at offensive tackle and wide receiver, which were much worse off in 2022 and are both positions the Patriots seem to be aggressively scouting ahead of the draft.

Think about it this way, too: what gets the Patriots closer to competing with the big dogs in the AFC? Grabbing an NFL-ready offensive tackle (see: Darnell Wright) or a dynamic wide receiver (see: Zay Flowers) with their first pick to help Mac Jones and an offense that struggled badly in 2022, or adding a cornerback that, while improving an important position, fits into a defense that is already competitive enough to make the playoffs?

Don't misread this: the Patriots should certainly add a cornerback or two in the draft. They just don't need to do it in the first round. They were able to add promising talent on Day 2 and 3 at the position last year, and they can certainly do it again in 2023 while making bigger plays at positions that will move the needle more for the Patriots now.

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