Jones is a pro-ready nickel corner from day one with punt return value
With the NFL draft merely 5(!) days away, I'll be counting down the days with a positional review of each of the Patriots projected draft needs. After starting the series with an offense-heavy approach, I'm turning my attention to the defense today. We took a look at the deep defensive tackle class earlier today, and now I'm checking out the team's options to bolster what surprisingly turned into a very strong secondary.
Position: Defensive back
Level of need: Short term: Intermediate Long term: High
My what difference a year makes. At this time last year, Pats fans were panicked over the state of the secondary following the offseason departures of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. Many feared that failing to retain Revis would send the secondary back to being the liability it was earlier in the decade, when the likes of Sterling Moore, James Ihedigbo and even Julian Edelman played meaningful snaps.
The team, of course, didn't panick, and spent 2015 reaping the rewards of betting on their young players. Malcolm Butler proved himself to be worthy of the hype, earning a Pro Bowl nod in his first season as a starter after holding his own in memorable battles against the likes of Odell Beckham Jr and Antonio Brown. On the opposite side, Logan Ryan took over the starting job and never let go. Ryan had been inconsistent in his first two seasons, but broke through in his third year, highlighted by stellar performances against Demaryius Thomas and DeAndre Hopkins. Despite that excellent season, Ryan could see competition for his starting job from 2015 seventh round pick Darryl "Swagg" Roberts, a talented athlete who was earning starting reps in the preseason before a dislocated wrist prematurely ended his season.
The immediate need on this team is for competition at nickel corner. Justin Coleman was competitive when healthy as rookie in the slot, but his struggles following his hand injury highlighted how reliant he was on being physical and getting his hands on receivers early. Teams occasionally picked on him and the team's other depth options following the injury. Rashaan Melvin is the only one of those depth players still on the roster, although the team did add veteran EJ Biggers for competition this offseason.
Corner is a more pressing long term need due to the contractual standings of Ryan and Butler, who are amongst the many key Patriots set to hit free agency following this season. While Ryan is good bet to hit the open market barring an extension, Butler will be a restricted free agent, meaning the Pats can use a first round tender to keep him for another year. Under that scenario, he could still leave if another team gave him a massive offer, but the Pats would have a right to match and would receive a first round pick in compensation if he were to leave. With Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins and Jabaal Sheard also in line for big money deals next, it would be surprising if they manage to keep both starting cornerbacks, which in turn creates a need to stock the pipeline now for a likely departure down the road.
Things are a bit more settled at safety, where the excellent starting duo of Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung are signed through 2019 and 2018 respectively. 2015 second round pick Jordan Richards had a quiet rookie year but figures to be in line for more snaps following the departure of Tavon Wilson, while Duron Harmon returns as McCourty's backup and a valuable reserve capable of holding the defense together as a single-high centerfielder. Harmon's ability to play that role has proven to be valuable for the defense, as it frees up McCourty to do other things when the game plan calls for it, and he's likely to get offered starter money if he hits the free agent market as currently scheduled at the end of the year. A sneaky draft pick would be trying to find a successor for his role, as Matt Patricia and Bill Belichick will miss the schematic flexibility Harmon affords them if they don't replace his skillset.
Out of reach:
Without a first round pick, the Pats can't expect to land an elite prospect at any position. Therefore, they can kiss any dreams of landing FSU's Jalen Ramsey, Florida's Vernon Hargreaves, Houston's William Jackson III, Clemson's Mackenzie Alexander or Ohio State's Eli Apple goodbye.
Day two targets:
Cyrus Jones: Alabama
Jones' lack of prototype height (5'10") and length (31/ 3/8" arms) has led many to pigeonhole him as a slot-only prospect, but he demonstrated the ability to play both inside and out against SEC competition for the Crimson Tide. Coached up by Belichick confidant Nick Saban, Jones is smart, tough and equally adept at man and zone coverage. While he has the talent to play sticky man coverage, Jones particularly impresses with his aggressive play against the run. With 197 pounds packed onto his 5'10 frame, Jones is strong as hell for his size and Belichick will likely love his willingness to attack and blow up outside running plays. He also brings additional value as an excellent punt returner who took four to the house last season, which would give the Pats a succession plan in the return game from their aging slot receivers. The only knocks on Jones' game are his lack of size and a tendency for "lapse" plays, as he gave up 10 touchdowns over the past two seasons. New England has been a popular destination for Jones in mock drafts, where he projects as an immediate contributor in the slot and on punt returns, and the Patriots have used one of their 30 official pre-draft visits on him in addition to putting him through a private workout.
Howard is a long press corner with upside
Xavien Howard: Baylor
Upside, upside, upside. Unlike Jones, Howard checks off all the boxes teams look for in a prototype outside corner. He's big (6'0", 201 pounds) and has the length and speed to run with receivers down the sidelines. Many scouts have noted that Howard would be best fit in a cover 3 scheme like Seattle's, where he could use his size to play receivers to the sidelines, and PFF noted that Howard's best moments on tape recall Richard Sherman. However, PFF also noted that his college tape is also maddeningly inconsistent and filled with plays where he gets beat over the top but doesn't get punished for it due to poor quarterback play. He could be a bit of a feast-or-famine option early in his career as he adjusts to facing better competition, but the upside is there to unlock a high-end starter if his technique and consistency are improved with coaching. For what it's worth, the Patriots met with Howard at the combine.
Artie Burns: Miami
Burns is raw, but he has abundant athleticism and a very high ceiling as an NFL cover man. A two-sport athlete who earned All Conference and All American honors as a member of the Hurricanes track team, Burns has rare natural athleticism to turn and run with receivers. He also has decent size (6'0", 193) and ideal length (33 1/4" arms) to match up with bigger receivers. Despite his clear talent, he put out some very inconsistent tape in college due to lack of technique and discipline. He was able to coast off his natural athleticism in college and might pay for some bad habits if he sees the field early in his career, but Burns has the upside to develop into a high-end starter with good coaching.
KeiVarae Russell: Notre Dame
A talented athlete, Russell was a starter from day one for the Irish, earning Freshman All American honors back in 2012 and producing another solid season as a sophomore. However, his career was put on halt in 2014 by an academic cheating scandal that cost him the entire season. Russell returned with a solid season this fall, where he continued to demonstrate the athleticism to stick with receivers in man coverage. His experience playing both outside and in the slot is a plus, and he comes battle-tested with three years of starting experience against high-level competition. Like any prospect, Russell has his faults as well. At 5'11" and 192 pounds, he has average size and could struggle against bigger receivers. He also played much of 2015 with a stress fracture in his tibia, so there are health concerns to check in on as well.
Redmond would be a high upside stash for 2017
Will Redmond: Mississippi State
An intriguing prospect, many scouts believe Redmond would've been in the first round discussion if not for a midseason ACL tear. Now his injury combined with a lack of experience (2015 was his first season as a starter) figures to push him into the Patriots range at the end of the third round, where he could be a terrific value. Prior to his injury, Redmond using his twitchy athleticism (4.38 40 time last August) to stick with receivers in man coverage. Scouts rave about his toughness and competitive nature, which shows up in his willingness to play the run despite average size (5'11", 182). The Patriots could be an ideal spot for him, as they have enough depth to be able to stash him for a year of rehab before unleashing him as a potentially high-level nickel corner in 2017. Perhaps they had that plan in mind when meeting with him at the combine.
Sean Davis: Maryland
A classic size/speed prospect, Davis played corner in 2015 for the Terps but will most likely move back to safety as a pro. At 6'1" and 201 pounds, he checks every box physically and will bring an intimidation factor to any defense due to his penchant for big, bone-crushing hits. Davis struggled in coverage last fall, and NFL teams will be hopeful that a move back to safety (and thus covering tight ends rather than receivers) will be what the doctor ordered for him. He certainly has the size and speed to be competitive in those matchups, and his FBS leading five forced fumbles in 2015 illustrate his playmaking potential. The Patriots recently got a closer look at him in a private workout.
Miles Killebrew: Southern Utah
Another hard-hitting size/speed safety prospect, Killebrew has earned comparisons to Arizona's Deone Bucannon for his aggressive play in the box. While competitive in coverage, Killebrew is at his best in the box, where his size (6'2", 217) makes him a candidate to be one of the hybrid safety/dime linebacker types that have recently taken the league by storm. He'll earn additional marks in New England for his special teams acumen, as he blocked two kicks as a senior and projects as a violent hitter on the coverage teams. Special teams would likely be his primary role early on if drafted by the Patriots, where he'd get a chance to develop as Patrick Chung's eventual successor. He was also put through a private workout recently by Patriots brass.
Day three targets:
Ryan Smith: North Carolina Central
A small school prospect who's seen his stock rise throughout the prospect, Smith projects as a fit for the Patriots as a nickel corner. Some scouts question his ability to match up with bigger receivers at 5'11" and 189 pounds, but Smith is tough for his size and has the foot quickness to mirror shifty receivers out of the slot. The Patriots are known to be one of the primary teams interested in him and put him through a private workout recently. He's likely to go in the early portions of day three.
DJ White: Georgia Tech
A team captain and three year starter for the Yellow Jackets, White has the versatility to play both inside and out and in both man and zone coverage. White is a solid, well-rounded prospect with few holes in his game, but his lack of elite athleticism or size figures to push him down draft boards a little in behind higher upside prospects. The Patriots met with him at the combine.
Justin Simmons: Boston College
A productive and versatile player for the Eagles, Simmons has experience at both safety and cornerback but projects as a rangy centerfielder at the next level. His ball skills are a major plus on the back end of a defense and he has the man coverage ability to stick with running backs and tight ends. Some scouts question his thin build, but Simmons was a sure tackler in college and brings additional value as a capable gunner on special teams. If drafted in New England, who used one of their 30 private pre-draft visits on him, he'd project as an immediate special teams contributor and a successor to Duron Harmon as Devin McCourty's backup and a key subpackage player.
Elijah Shumate: Notre Dame
Shumate was a highly touted recruit, but limitations in man coverage prevented him from living up to expectations in South Bend. He projects as an in-the-box specialist at the next level, where he could use his size (6'0", 216) and physicality to his advantage. Shumate also brings value as a capable option on special teams coverage units. The Patriots put him through a private workout this spring.
Blake Countess: Auburn
A former top 10 cornerback recruit out of high school, Countess transferred from Michigan to Auburn for his senior season, where he was productive despite a mid-season position switch from cornerback to safety. Countess was snubbed from the combine, but put up impressive athletic testing numbers at Auburn's pro day, where the Patriots put him through an individual workout. A likely late round pick, Countess offers athletic upside and immediate special teams value regardless of what position he winds up playing.
Taveze Calhoun: Mississippi State
Will Redmond's running mate with the Bulldogs, Calhoun is a smart player with plus height and length (6'0", 31 7/8" arms) and plenty of experience against NFL caliber receivers. Scouts rave about his character and leadership, but worry about his slightly built frame (only 192 pounds) and lack of recovery speed deep. His special teams ability is a plus, and the Patriots used one of their private pre-draft visits on him.
James Bradberry: Samford
Another size/speed prospect, Bradberry has the pure size (6'1", 211) and length (33 3/8" arms) to develop into an excellent press corner in the mold of Brandon Browner. Like Browner, Bradberry's size is an asset in matching up with bigger receivers as well as run support. Also like Browner, he struggles against quickness and could be a matchup specific player. The Patriots met with him at the combine.