The Patriots replaced cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, who left in free agency, by signing veterans Bradley Fletcher, Robert McClain, and Chimdi Chekwa last month.
But the Patriots didn’t really “replace” Revis and Browner, whose elite skills played a major role in their fourth Super Bowl victory in February. No offense to Fletcher, McClain, and Chekwa, but those guys are depth pieces, not elite, No. 1 cornerback material.
To get anywhere close to the athleticism and size of Revis and Browner, the Patriots will have to try their hand at the NFL Draft, in which they currently hold the No. 32 pick. Fortunately for the Patriots, this year’s draft, which begins Thursday night in Chicago, just happens to have a glut of intriguing prospects at defensive back.
This year’s cornerback class lacks an elite, top-10 prospect and doesn’t have a clear No. 1 at the position. But it’s a deep, versatile group that could have as many as two dozen prospects drafted in the top three rounds.
“If you want a corner, this is the year to have that need,” ESPN’s Mel Kiper said. “This is a great cornerback group. You have four, five, six cornerback types that could go in the first round.”
It’s unlikely that the Patriots will have a crack at the top two or three prospects, who should go in the 15-22 range: Michigan State’s Trae Waynes, Wake Forest’s Kevin Johnson, and Washington’s Marcus Peters.
The intriguing prospect is Peters, who has first-round skill and good size, but also carries some red flags. Peters was kicked off the Huskies team in November after repeated clashes with new coach Chris Petersen and his staff. Kiper believes that the transgressions were relatively minor and that Peters will likely be off the board before the Patriots pick at No. 32.
An AFC personnel executive mostly agreed with Kiper, noting that it’s common for players from an old regime to clash with a new coaching staff. But, said the executive, “It’s definitely something you want to check out: Can he mature and how does he handle authority?”
The Patriots should have their pick of several talented players at No. 32, many of whom have the ability to play cornerback or safety, displaying the versatility that Bill Belichick craves.
If the Patriots want a big, physical cornerback to play press-man coverage, LSU’s Jalen Collins (6 feet 1 inch, 203 pounds) might be the best fit in the draft. He is a raw prospect, with only 10 starts in college, but the Patriots have a deep enough cornerback group in 2015 that they can afford to bring him or any other rookie along slowly and develop him for the future.
“He’s a press corner, not afraid to play in your face, will tackle, understands how to play the game, has some physicality about him,” said NFL Network’s Mike Mayock. “I think he’s going to be a first-round pick.”
The players with the most versatility are Connecticut’s Byron Jones, Utah’s Eric Rowe, and Arizona State’s Damarious Randall, and their ability to play deep safety will boost their stock in a draft with a weak overall safety class. While the Patriots have Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, and Duron Harmon, it never hurts to add depth at safety and develop for the future.
Jones entered the predraft period a bit off the radar after undergoing shoulder surgery and missing the final two months of 2014. But he had an unbelievable combine — running a blistering 4.35 and logging what would be a world-record 12.5 feet in the broad jump — and also performed well in position drills, leading to many predictions that he will be taken before the 32d pick (the Eagles are one team to watch).
Rowe, a two-year starter at safety for the Utes and a one-year starter at outside cornerback, has the physicality to play the run and press-man coverage. Randall is essentially a cornerback who plays safety, with the ability to shadow running backs and tight ends in man-to-man coverage.
The Patriots have enough veteran depth at cornerback that they don’t necessarily have to take one in this draft. Kyle Arrington, Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, Alfonzo Dennard, McClain, Fletcher, and Chekwa are already on the roster, battling for five or six spots.
And Belichick’s history of drafting cornerbacks is checkered. He did well with Dennard (seventh round), Asante Samuel (fourth round), and Ellis Hobbs (third round), whiffed on Ras-I Dowling, Darius Butler, and Terrence Wheatley (all second-rounders), and the jury is still out on Ryan (third round).
But Fletcher, McClain, and Chekwa each signed for only one year, Arrington might be entering the final year of his Patriots tenure, and this year’s draft is deep enough for the Patriots to invest a third- or fourth-round pick into a developmental player.
Beyond the half-dozen or so first-round candidates, the Patriots can still potentially find a quality cornerback in the middle rounds — someone like Florida Atlantic’s D’Joun Smith, Louisville’s Charles Gaines, or Mississippi’s Senquez Golson, who is undersized at 5-8 but had 10 interceptions last year and could be an excellent slot cornerback.
“You have a lot of options,” Kiper said. “This is deep all the way down. I could go down to 25 corners that have a chance to play in the NFL.”
Ben Volin’s top prospects at defensive back:
|CB Trae Waynes*||Michigan State||6-0||186||4.31||1|
|Should be top-20 pick as a solid press-man cornerback. He had a great combine in drills and workouts, and has the size to cover big receivers.|
|CB Kevin Johnson||Wake Forest||6-0||188||4.52||1|
|Considered by some the top CB prospect; solid all-around cover cornerback, with good size, long arms, quick footwork, and a willingness to stop the run; good chance to go top 20.|
|CB Marcus Peters*||Washington||6-0||197||4.53||1|
|Definite red flags — was kicked off the Huskies in 2014 after getting into several spats with new coaching staff — but he's too talented and physical to get past the first round.|
|CB/S Byron Jones||Connecticut||6-1||196||4.35||1|
|Shoulder injury cut 2014 season short, but had a terrific spring in ball drills and workouts, charting a ridiculous 44-inch vertical and 12.5-foot broad jump.|
|S/CB Eric Rowe||Utah||6-1||205||4.45||1-2|
|Size and physicality to play press-man corner or free safety, and versatility might vault him into first round because of weak safety class.|
|CB Jalen Collins*||LSU||6-1||203||4.48||1-2|
|Played at high level in toughest division in college football, and has rare combination of size and speed that teams crave; great fit for team that plays a lot of press-man.|
|S Landon Collins*||Alabama||6-0||228||4.53||1-2|
|Physical tackler who is in-the-box run defender and blitzer much more than deep free safety; needs to work on coverage skills, but can be a force in run game.|
|CB Ronald Darby*||Florida State||5-11||193||4.38||1-2|
|Speedy cornerback with solid coverage skills who makes up for less-than-ideal height with a 41-inch vertical; needs to work on ball skills, but has No. 1 cornerback potential.|
|CB Senquez Golson||Mississippi||5-8||178||4.46||2-3|
|Undersized for NFL, but also has best pure cover skills in draft and was an absolute football magnet in 2014, securing 10 interceptions and showing great instincts.|
|S Damarious Randall||Arizona State||5-10||194||4.46||2-3|
|Versatile DB best suited for deep center field and talented enough to play nickel cornerback; willing run defender and had 9.5 tackles for losses in 2014.|
Best of the rest: CB P.J. Williams, Florida State (6-0, 194, 4.57, 2-3), CB Charles Gaines*, Louisville (5-10, 180, 4.44, 2-3), CB Alex Carter*, Stanford (6-0, 196, 4.51, 2-3), CB D’Joun Smith, Florida Atlantic (5-10, 187, 4.45, 2-3), CB Steven Nelson, Oregon State (5-10, 197, 4.49, 2-3), CB/S Doran Grant, Ohio State (5-10, 199, 4.44, 2-3), CB/S Quinten Rollins, Miami (5-11, 195, 4.57, 2-3), S Anthony Harris, Virginia (6-1, 183, 4.59, 3-4), S Jaquiski Tartt, Samford (6-1, 221, 4.53, 3-4).