Jalen Collins is just one of several potential top corners available in this year's draft. Gerald Herbert/AP
As the NFL draft rapidly approaches, PatriotsLife will be doing it's
best to keep you informed and up-to-date on all things draft. With that
in mind, we'll be taking an in-depth look at each of the Patriots
positions of need, sifting through the prospects to highlight potential
Patriot fits. We're staying on the defensive side of the ball today with a comprehensive look at this year's cornerbacks and safeties. Position: Cornerback/Safety
Need level: Low, but could become high. We simply won't know whether defensive back is a priority need until the Darrelle Revis and Devin McCourty contract situations get worked out. If the Pats can bring both players back, adding reinforcements to the secondary will drop towards the bottom of the their priorities, as the vast majority of last year's championship squad figures to return.
However, losing either player would leave a major void at a crucial position. While the Patriots have plenty of depth at corner, Revis's shutdown ability added a new dimension to the Patriots defense. Losing that would likely make a great 2014 defense revert to average in 2015. Likewise, the importance of McCourty's role "quarterbacking" the secondary from the back end cannot be understated, and handing that role to a lesser player could be playing with fire.
Asking any rookie to come in and fill Revis's role seamlessly would be insanity, but this years draft does feature a number of talented corners, most of whom excel at the Patriots preferred press-man coverage. If (knocking furiously on wood as I type this) Revis does walk, they'll likely have several potential starters on the board when their first round pick comes up. Even if he doesn't, the value of adding a potential top corner with the 32nd pick could be tempting, especially given the age of Brandon Browner (31 in August) and Revis (30 in July).
McCourty may not match Revis in open market value, but the Pro Bowl safety plays a key role as the last line of defense in the Patriots secondary. McCourty's smarts, positioning and range help him to excel at taking away the deep ball, while his background at corner gives him the flexibility to match up one on one with a receiver if necessary. While not the big hitter fans drool for, McCourty is also as reliable as they come tackling in run support.
If McCourty were to leave, it's hard to imagine Belichick giving his level of responsibility to a rookie draft pick. In that scenario, Duron Harmon would likely take over McCourty's single-high centerfield role. Harmon has looked good in that role when called upon, but has yet to have the opportunity to do so in a full-time role. He'd still have a significant leg up experience-wise on any draftee the team brings in.
The Patriots are fortunate to have a promising young player like Harmon backing up McCourty, because their draft options appear slim. Safety looks like one of the weakest positions in the entire draft. It's possible that we see only one safety taken in the first two rounds, and very few are expected to go before the draft's third day.
Day One fits:
If the Patriots do head into the draft in need of a top corner to replace Darrelle Revis, they'll at least have a number of talented options to choose from. The electric combine performance of Michigan State's Trae Waynes ensured he'll be long gone by the time the Patriots pick, but the Pats could find themselves with at least one of the following prospects still on the board: LSU's Jalen Collins, Wake Forest's Kevin Johnson, Florida State's PJ Williams or Washington's Marcus Peters.
All four of those corners are built to play press-man coverage, making them a nice scheme fit for the Pats. Of those five, the 6'1", 203 pound Collins probably has the highest upside. Collins has every physical attribute one could want from a man corner: height, length, speed, strength, ball skills and willingness in run support. With only 10 collegiate starts under his belt, Collins is on the raw side, but his shutdown upside is undeniable. He'd be a tremendous value if available at 32, but his impressive combine performance likely ensured he'll also be gone before the Pats pick.
Johnson has ball-hawking potential
A more realistic target could be Johnson, a smooth, athletic man corner who usually tracked opponent's top receivers at Wake Forest. At 6'0" and only 188 pounds, Johnson could use a year in an NFL weight program, but his coverage skills and competitive fire are already NFL ready. Johnson could fall a bit due to a slower-than-expected 4.52 combine 40 time and improving on that time at his Pro Day will be key for his first round chances. However, the explosiveness and short area quickness required to post standout numbers on the vertical leap, broad jump, 3 cone drill and 20 yard shuffle could be more conducive to pro success. Johnson certainly looks faster than that 40 time on film.
Another talented corner who could fall to 32 due to a poor 40 time is Florida State's Williams. Williams specializes in bump and run coverage, where his excellent length allows him disrupt his man's timing. The stopwatch says he ran a 4.57 40 in Indy, but the tape shows a confident, talented man corner capable of matching outside or in the slot, and Bill Belichick will surely love his instincts, ball skills and sure tackling ability.
Peters is one of the draft's biggest wild cards. A long, physical press corner with a knack for winning 50-50 balls, Peters would be a no doubt first round pick with a clean off the field record. However, his immaturity was reportedly a chronic problem at Washington, one that culminated with his dismissal from the program in November. While Peters has the potential to turn into a shutdown corner (he reminds scouts of Aqib Talib), I suspect the Patriots won't consider him worth the trouble, at least not with a first round pick.
Safety doesn't appear to be a position likely to be targeted with this years pick, as the only safety with a first round grade is Alabama's Landon Collins. Collins is a physical thumper of a strong safety with additional value as a core special teams player, but he's unlikely to fall all the way to the Pats at 32.
Day Two fits (Rounds 2-3):
If the Patriots opt for a corner in the second round, Miami of Ohio's Quinten Rollins offers a unique story and intriguing potential. A four year starter at point guard for the RedHawks, Rollins used his fifth year of eligibility to pick up football for the first time since high school. The 5'11", 195 pound athlete made a seamless transition to cornernack, picking off 7 passes en route to earning MAC defensive player of the year honors. Rollins has excellent ball skills and short area quickness, and would have an outside shot of going in the first round if not for questions about his deep speed (4.57 40 yard dash). He's unlikely to last all the way to the 64th pick, but could be an option if the Pats trade back into the early/middle portions of the second round.
Another option would be PJ Williams' Florida State teammate Ronald Darby. Speed certainly isn't a concern for him, as Darby proved to be one of the combine's fastest competitors with an impressive 4.38 40 time. Like Williams, Darby is a cover corner with the length and athleticism to carry over his collegiate success to the pros. Some scouts have questioned his toughness, but the consensus seems to be clear that Darby has the talent to start at the next level. However, teams also have to consider his role in the infamous Jameis Winston sexual assault case (Darby reportedly refused to testify, despite having witnessed the act), something that could remove him from consideration for the always PR-conscious Patriots.
Ekpre-Olomu could be an intriguing value pick if he slides down draft boards
Finally, Oregon's Ifo Ekpre-Olomu could become an intriguing value as a "stash" pick after suffering a serious knee injury prior to the college football playoffs. Combining said knee injury with his lack of prototypical size (5'9", 195), Ekpre-Olomu is a good bet to be on the board when the 64th pick comes around, and he could very well slide further due to his injured status. That lack of size would be negated somewhat on a match-up based defense like New England's, and the Patriots would surely be intrigued by a corner with the ability to play man or zone and inside or outside. Ekpre-Olomu was a playmaker at the collegiate level, and his ball skills would add another big play dynamic to the Pats defense. He also brings additional value as a potential gunner on special teams.
The Day two options are less exciting at safety. Louisville's Gerod Holliman has gotten some hype after putting up ridiculous numbers (17 passes defensed, 14 interceptions) in his lone season as a starter, but his poor tackling and tendency to freelance make him a poor fit for what the Patriots look for from the position. A better option could be Fresno State's Derron Smith, who could fall down some draft boards due to his lack of prototype size (5'10", 200 pounds) and speed. However, Smith is a tough, instinctive player with excellent coverage ability and exciting ball skills. He could be the best option in a weak draft class if the Pats are looking for someone to fill McCourty's former role.
A final, intriguing option as a potential McCourty replacement could be UConn's Byron Jones. Jones may have leaped into the consciousness of most NFL fans just recently thanks to his record setting combine performance, but scouts were already well aware of Jones as a productive four-year starter with desirable length, size and ball skills. He also brings versatility to the table, as he was a starter at safety his first two collegiate seasons before making the switch to corner to fill a roster need. Jones brings outstanding smarts and instincts to the field, something which combine with his range and ball skills to give him intriguing potential in McCourty's single deep safety role, and he's been lauded by scouts, coaches and teammates for his character and leadership. There's a chance he's still on the board when the Pats pick in the second round, but he's unlikely to fall much further if the Pats pass on him there.
Day Three fits (Rounds 4-7)
Jones' stock is currently higher, but Utah's Eric Rowe is another intriguing athlete with experience at both corner and free safety who could be available a little later in the draft. Rowe's combination of size, length and strength gives him potential as a press corner, and Bill Belichick will love the physicality he brings as a run defender and on special teams. There's a chance that Rowe is still there in the late third/early fourth round range, which could be a sweet spot for the Pats pick-wise if they are awarded a third round compensatory pick to go with their own and Tampa's early fourth round pick acquired in the Logan Mankins trade. Of course, his availability will depend on how much weight teams give to a fantastic combine performance that saw him excel in every athletic test.
Another potential value pick in that range could be Mississippi's Senquez Golson. Golson put out great tape as a senior, collecting 9 interceptions and 16 passes defensed en route to All SEC first team honors. However, his lack of height and length (5'9" with 29 3/4th" arms) could cause him to slide down draft boards, as he'll certainly be mismatched against bigger receivers. That size disadvantage would be negated somewhat by New England's match-up based schemes, and Golson is a well-built, instinctive and physical football player despite his lack of size. Interestingly enough, Golson was originally drafted by the Boston Red Sox in 2011, and turned down a substantial contract offer to focus on football.
Gaines has high upside in coverage for a Day 3 prospect
Louisville's Charles Gaines is another corner who could offer excellent value if available in that late fourth round range. Gaines is smooth and athletic in coverage, with plus length and excellent instincts at the position. He also brings added value as special teams contributor with experience as a returner and gunner. Gaines occasionally struggles against the deep ball, and would really benefit from some good coaching and a year or two in an NFL weight program, but the former receiver's natural athleticism and coverage ability give him nice upside for a prospect in that range.
At safety, Penn State's Adrian Amos has the experience and skill-set necessary to succeed in a single-high centerfield role. Amos has good range and desirable size and length for the position but, like McCourty, his brain might be his best asset on the field. Amos was rarely out of position on the back end in college, and was often responsible for lining up the defense. He also flashed versatility, with solid showings both in man coverage from the slot and in zone.
While the options beyond Amos look rather unappealing, one late round prospect with some developmental upside could be Arizona State's Damarious Randall. Scouts love his toughness, physicality and effort on the field, and Randall flashed his athleticism with standout numbers in the 40 yard dash (4.46 seconds), vertical leap (38"), 3 cone drill (6.83 seconds) and 20 yard shuffle (4.07 seconds). Despite that athleticism, Randall faces questions about his NFL fit due to his below average size, and figures to be available in the late rounds of the draft. He could prove to be a steal there, as that combination of speed and physicality give Randall potential as an immediate special teams contributor (he has experience both returning and covering kicks) with the athletic potential to develop into something more down the road.