(An occasional series on the key positional battles expected at Patriots training camp)
The Patriots secondary is stacked.
As the NFL has developed more and more into a passing league, New England has collected a bunch of crackerjack cornerbacks and stockpiled a slew of superb safeties.
There’s an embarrassment of riches when it comes to nickel and dime packages, but make no mistake, the Patriots won’t be apologizing any time soon for their deft roster-building.
The surplus of bodies should make for an extremely competitive summer and then tough decisions when the initial 53-man roster is revealed Aug. 31.
At cornerback, the starting jobs should be set with All-Pro Stephon Gilmore playing opposite J.C. Jackson and/or Jason McCourty, depending on game-plan matchups and packages.
Gilmore is coming off a phenomenal season, fittingly capped by a Super Bowl-clinching interception. Sticky and physical, Gilmore is the ideal matchup guy. Sic him on the opponents’ best pass catcher (regardless of body type) and the 6-foot-1-inch, 202-pound Gilmore will stay on his hip throughout the route. Nobody feels comfortable playing against this guy.
Jackson (5-10, 198 pounds) is both quick and fast. Veteran teammates were blown away by the undrafted rookie’s deep-ball defense almost from the time he arrived last season. Jackson plays with a confident swagger and a short memory – two key qualities for success at his position.
An undisclosed injury caused Jason McCourty to get off to a slow start last summer — leading many to believe he was on the roster bubble — but he came on like gangbusters. He’s smart, savvy, and does a spot-on impersonation of Devin McCourty.
Jonathan Jones has played slot corner, on the edge, and some safety. He’s also one of the fastest players on the team and a tremendous special teams contributor.
The Patriots traded up to take corners in the second round in 2018 (Duke Dawson) and 2019 (Joejuan Williams), and a lot of summer eyes will be fixed on these two as they try to find a role in this defense and on special teams.
Dawson (hamstring) started his rookie season on injured reserve and by the time he was healthy enough to contribute, the rotation was set. Dawson (5-10, 198 pounds) is smart and strong and looked good during minicamp.
Williams (6-3, 208 pounds) is a press corner with the size and strength to combat and neutralize big receivers.
Williams battled the top receivers in the SEC for years, so this stage shouldn’t be too big for him. He got a lot of work during minicamp and didn’t look a bit out of place.
New England drafted corners in the seventh round the last two seasons as well (Keion Crossen in ’18 and Ken Webster in ’19).
Crossen (5-10, 185 pounds) made the 53 after a standout summer. He saw some cornerback time during the regular season but really made his mark on special teams. The dude really has a knack for being around the ball.
Webster has great upper-body strength and can delay opponents at the line of scrimmage. Webster (5-11, 201 pounds) needs to jam consistently because he lacks elite downfield speed. He likes to get physical and really shines in run support.
D’Angelo Ross (5-9, 180 pounds) was signed as an undrafted rookie. A standout at New Mexico, Ross has speed to burn (he ran a 4.32 40 at his Pro Day) and good instincts. He has an uphill climb.
The Patriots likely will keep six corners (seven isn’t out of the question) but several of the above candidates could be shifted to safety, increasing their value and giving the team added flexibility.
Jason McCourty saw some safety time last season and Jones excelled in the role in the Super Bowl victory over the Rams. Dawson has the skill set to make the switch, too, and could emerge at the star position, providing depth behind Patrick Chung.
There are five locks at safety, with Devin McCourty and Chung at the top of the list. These captains are smart, tough, versatile, and show no signs of slowing despite more than a decade in the league.
Duron Harmon is a smart center fielder who has added muscle recently. Newcomer Terrence Brooks is a ballhawk, while Nate Ebner is a special teams rock.
The big question is whether one of the younger players can earn a developmental/depth spot on the active roster. The Patriots always carry extra defensive backs on the practice squad.
Obi Melifonwu’s size (6-4, 224 pounds) and athleticism are eye-popping. If he can polish the rough edges, he could be a matchup specialist/nightmare for offensive coordinators.
A.J. Howard (a postseason practice squad signee) and undrafted rookie Malik Gant are smart and athletic. Howard flashed ridiculous closing burst at Appalachian State, while Gant’s highlights from Marshall are full of teeth-loosening hits.
Previous positional battles covered:
■ Wide receivers: Jobs will be up for grabs during Patriots training camp