Take a closer look at the Patriots cornerback heavy class of undrafted rookies
|Jones has top end NFL athleticism, which he uses to make up for a lack of prototypical size|
The Patriots have yet to formally announce their class of undrafted free agents, but many of the rookies have taken to social media to "confirm" their signing with the team. It's noteworthy that four of eight players to do so are defensive backs, who will join second round pick Cyrus Jones and sixth rounder Kamu Grugier-Hill (going to take a while to get used to that name) in what figures to be a highly competitive positional group in training camp. That makes sense, as 2015 starters Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan are scheduled to hit free agency next offseason, along with key sub-package safety Duron Harmon.
That group of defensive backs consists of Auburn corner Jonathan Jones, Florida Atlantic corner Cre'von LeBlanc, Texas A&M free safety Devonta Burns and Virginia corner V'Angelo Bentley. The rest of their free agent class (so far) consists of Arizona State running back/wide receiver DJ Foster, Vanderbilt tight end Steven Scheu, Mississippi linebacker CJ Johnson and Johnson's teammate, defensive tackle Woodrow Hamilton. Mississippi State wide receiver/tight end De'Runnya Wilson was previously reported as a signing, but Draft Insider Tony Pauline has since reported that Wilson has yet to sign and that there remains a competition for his NFL rights.
Jones made headlines at the combine, where his 4.33 40 yard dash was the fastest time amongst the cornerbacks. His fantastic athleticism and strong Senior Bowl showing had many draft prognosticators projecting him as a middle round pick, but Jones surprisingly went undrafted, likely due to his lack of size (5'9", 186). The Patriots interest in him was reported during the pre-draft process.
LeBlanc is another corner whom many believed would be drafted, but found himself on the outside looking in due to a lack of size (5'9", 185) and a poor 40 yard dash time (4.62). Despite that lack of size, LeBlanc is an impressive run defender who also displayed good coverage ability at the East-West Shrine game.
Burns was a starter at nickel corner as a junior and at free safety as a senior for the Aggies, but he truly shined on special teams. He was named the Aggies Special Teams co-MVP this year after finishing with an impressive 12 tackles on the kick and punt coverage teams, and his work there will be key to his chance at earning a roster spot this summer.
Bentley earned All Conference honorable mention honors his final two seasons at Illinois, but went undrafted due to (you're probably sensing a theme here) a lack of size. Despite his 5'10", 190 pound frame, Bentley is a reliable tackler in run support and brings extra value on special teams, where he has experience returning both punts and kickoffs. Bentley is the only player in school history to return a punt, kickoff, interception and fumble for touchdowns in his career, and he led the Big 10 in punt return average as a sophomore.
Foster might be the biggest name on this Patriots list. He earned second team All Pac 12 honors as junior playing running back, but made the conversion to slot receiver for his senior season. Much like Dion Lewis, Foster has explosive quickness in space, but he's not a true between-the-tackles runner at the pro level nor a polished receiver yet. Despite that, he has the athletic talent to develop into a playmaker if used correctly.
Scheu earned second team All SEC honors as junior before seeing his production suffer in an inefficient offense during his senior year. He lacks the athleticism to be a dynamic weapon in the passing game, but could develop into a solid possession-type pass catcher. He'll also need to add strength to be an in-line blocker. He could be a practice squad candidate with an impressive summer.
Johnson was a player I highlighted in my Patriots Draft Preview series, as the Pats met with him at the combine. He's raw as a linebacker, having converted there from defensive end as a senior, but comes lauded for his leadership and toughness by all associated with the Bulldogs program.
At 6'3" and 319 pounds, Hamilton continues the Patriots recent trend towards bigger bodied defensive tackles. He was a three year contributor at nose tackle for one of the nations best defenses in college. He could earn a depth role on the roster with a strong summer performance, but a deep depth chart at defensive tackle suggests the practice squad could be a more realistic option for him.
Finally, if the Patriots do land Wilson, that would be a very interesting addition to the roster. A former basketball player who didn't pick up football until his senior year of high school, Wilson is a massive (6'5", 224 pound, 33 7/8" arms) target who puts his size to good use in the red zone. Despite scoring 19 touchdowns over his final two years and earning second team all SEC honors as a senior, Wilson went undrafted due to a sluggish combine performance that made his lack of top end athleticism painfully clear. His lack of pure speed or explosive quickness has led to whispers that he could be converted to tight end, where his size and red zone prowess would make him an intriguing developmental project.