Outside of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, the one thing all six New England Patriots championship teams had in common is an elite lockdown cornerback. The Patriots had Ty Law for their first three championships, Darrelle Revis in 2014, and 2016’s sixth-ranked cornerback in Malcolm Butler. This trend continued in 2018, as Stephon Gilmore headlined arguably the best cornerback depth chart of any recent Patriots team. Let’s take a look at how the Patriots cornerbacks performed in 2018, and what the positional outlook is for 2019.
Stephon Gilmore turned into everything the Patriots could have ever hoped for when they signed him to a five-year, $65 million contract prior to the 2017 season. Playing in all 16 games, the 28-year old cornerback broke up 20 passes while recording two interceptions and two forced fumbles. He saved his best work of the season for last, as the First-Team All-Pro had the game-sealing interception in Super Bowl LIII.
Gilmore was the best of the bunch, but he was far from the only star. Undrafted rookie J.C. Jackson emerged down the stretch, starting the final five games of the regular season. Jackson locked down his side of the field, boasting an incredible 42.0 passer rating when targeted. Per NESN’s Doug Kyed, this passer rating when targeted was the second-lowest since the 2006 season.
These two weren’t New England’s only great cornerbacks, as first-year Patriot Jason McCourty had another season to remember. The former sixth-round pick initially joined the Patriots in a seventh-round pick swap with the Cleveland Browns, and it’s safe to say that trade worked out for New England. Playing in all 16 games, McCourty recorded one interception while breaking up 10 passes. McCourty capped off his impressive season in Super Bowl LIII by making the biggest play of the game. Holding on to a 3-0 lead late in the third quarter, the Patriots defense allowed Brandin Cooks to get wide open in the back of the endzone. Jared Goff threw what should have been an easy touchdown, but McCourty came out of nowhere to break up the pass. New England ended up winning by 10, but this could have gone much differently had McCourty not made that play.
The Mostly Good
Jonathan Jones wasn’t as good as the aforementioned trio of cornerbacks, but the former undrafted free agent put together a solid season of his own. Working primarily out of the slot, Jones finished his season as the 73rd-ranked cornerback, per Pro Football Focus. The film backs this up, as Jones was pretty average throughout the year.
Jones had wild journey throughout the 2018 postseason run. After hardly playing in the Divisional round against the Los Angeles Chargers, Jones was tasked with stopping superstar wide receiver Tyreek Hill in the AFC Championship Game against the Kansas City Chiefs. The third-year cornerback did his job, as Hill didn’t have a single reception with Jones in coverage. The AFC Championship was Jones’ best performance of the season, but he played a big role in winning Super Bowl LIII as well. With Patrick Chung injured midway through the contest, Jones ended up taking over the pseudo-safety position. Basically, Jones did everything asked of him and played his best when it mattered most.
The Patriots drafted two cornerbacks in the 2018 NFL Draft, but neither player saw the field with any regularity. Second-round pick Duke Dawson suffered an injury in training camp and then aggravated it during the preseason. New England put the rookie on the short-term IR, but the slot cornerback couldn’t make it back on the field once healthy. It’s obviously discouraging that such a highly-drafted player gave so little, but it’s too early to make an assessment on his future.
While Dawson’s season essentially ended before it began, Keion Crossen managed to stay healthy throughout the 2018 season. Primarily playing on special teams, Crossen played in just 3.74% of the defensive snaps. His role could grow in 2018, but right now he’s a specialist player.
Last and probably least is Eric Rowe. Rowe entered the year as the starting cornerback, playing 100% of the snaps in the season opener. However, Rowe suffered an injury in Week Two, forcing him to miss three weeks of action. The third-year Patriot returned for two games before re-aggravating his injury and landing on the injured reserve. Rowe’s currently a free agent and probably won’t be back in 2019.
The Patriots are set at the cornerback position for the foreseeable future. Stephon Gilmore still has three years left on his contract and should continue to bring his elite play to the Patriots secondary. J.C. Jackson should only improve from his rookie season, and some within the Patriots organization are saying he could be even better than Stephon Gilmore. If that dream comes to fruition, New England would have the best cornerback duo in all of football.
As of this posting, Jonathan Jones is still lined up to be New England’s slot cornerback. The two-time Super Bowl champion is a restricted free agent, meaning the Patriots will likely bring him back for at least more season. How long he stays likely depends on how the organization views Duke Dawson. Injuries essentially took away Dawson’s entire rookie season, so it’s hard to judge where he is as a player. 2019 will be a huge year for the Florida product, as Bill Belichick and company haven’t shied away from cutting second-round picks in the past.
Jason McCourty and Eric Rowe are both free agents, and could very well move on to different teams. McCourty has already expressed interest in returning to New England, and the Patriots would probably love to have him. However, the Patriots only have $14.4 million in cap space and still need to worry about re-signing Trey Flowers and Trent Brown, or their respective replacements. Bringing back McCourty isn’t New England’s top priority at the moment. As for Rowe, the former Philadelphia Eagle has battled injury and inconsistency throughout his career. He could come back on a minimum contract, but he wouldn’t be guaranteed a roster spot.
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