Will Cyrus Jones fill the important nickel corner role as a rookie?
With Patriots training camp thankfully almost upon us, I'll be taking a closer look at some of the more intriguing positional battles on the roster. After reviewing the team's thin running back corps yesterday, today I'm looking at a group deep enough to potentially produce some tough cuts: cornerback.
The only question surrounding Butler is whether he becomes the first of the Patriots major upcoming free agents to receive a long-term extension. His second season saw Butler blossom into a legitimate star corner, tracking superstars such as Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham Jr all around the field en route to earning a deserved Pro Bowl nod. However, as a 2014 undrafted rookie, Butler has made peanuts relative to his on-field performance, leading to honest public comments regarding his desire to acquire the financial security of a long-term deal. Butler has little leverage, as he'll merely be a restricted free agent next offseason, allowing the team to either retain him in 2017 for just under $4 million (again, peanuts compared to what his level of play earns on the open market) or gain a first round pick in compensation if another team gives him an offer the Pats are unwilling to match. With Butler currently set to risk injury this season without getting his well deserved payday, perhaps he'd be more inclined to take the security of a long-term deal, even if said deal is below what he could earn on the open market. Regardless of his contract situation, Butler remains the team's best cornerback and his ability to mirror the league's shiftiest receivers inside and outside the formation is integral to the team's man-heavy, matchup based coverage tendencies.
Another young cornerback in line for his first big contract, the previously inconsistent Ryan took advantage of the departures of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner to seize a starting role in 2015. The 2013 third round pick finished the season amongst the top 25 graded corners on PFF, spending much of the year matched up with bigger, more physical receivers such as Brandon Marshall and Demaryius Thomas. The scheme often painted Ryan as the number two corner, with safety help often shaded his way against tougher matchups, but his ability to hold up on his end of the bargain helped the Pats maintain the man coverage principles from the previous season's Super Bowl winning team. Set to hit unrestricted free agency following the season, Ryan could earn a significant pay bump (likely somewhere else) if he proves that last season's jump wasn't a fluke with another productive year.
This year's highest draft pick, Jones is a lock based on draft investment alone, but his talent suggests he'll earn his way towards regular snaps. Jones was a productive cover man in Alabama's pro-style defense, often competing with NFL talent in the SEC. While his lack of height (5'10") has led to many projecting him as a slot only option, Jones played the majority of his college snaps on the outside, using his ball skills and physicality to make up for his lack of prototype size. While Jones does indeed project to a nickel role, it wouldn't be surprising to see one of Butler or Ryan bumping inside when opponents spread them out, with Jones subbing in on the outside. Jones' physical play should make him an asset defending the run from the nickel right away, and he also provides immediate value as the team's likely punt and kick returner.
No one behind the aforementioned three has separated themselves from the pack enough to earn this designation. The remaining roles will be earned by whoever from the following group shows the most over the next month.
On the fringe:
Coleman looks to build on a solid rookie season
An undrafted rookie last season who was plucked off of Seattle's practice squad, Coleman quickly worked his way up the depth chart and eventually settled into the number three role. Like all rookies, he had some ups and downs, but Coleman was largely competitive in coverage before a broken hand limited his ability to jam receivers at the line. At that point, he had proven his worth enough to be kept on the active roster while healing rather than being stashed on the injured reserve, despite the team's need at times to add healthy bodies at other positions to the roster. Coleman returns for his second season battled tested and loaded with athletic upside, giving him the early leg up on the competition, but he'll have to at the very least maintain last season's level of play to hold off some talented additions to the depth chart.
A seventh round pick last year, Roberts came to the Patriots with eye-popping athletic measurables and college production that far outweighed his draft status. He quickly showed why his nickname is "Swagg", showing well enough on the practice field to earn competitive first team reps early in camp. Roberts actually started the team's first preseason game, ahead of Ryan, but suffered a broken wrist in that game that required season-ending surgery. Fully healthy now, Roberts has the talent to compete for a significant role, but it will be a matter of staying healthy and consistent for him to move up the depth chart.
A veteran journeyman who has stuck around in the league since becoming a seventh round pick of the Bucs back in 2009, Biggers has experience and versatility on his side. While best utilized in the slot, Biggers also has the length to cover on the outside and can play safety in a pinch if need be. He also has special teams value, which should help him in what figures to be a very close competition for what is unlikely to be more than two roster spots. He flashed earlier in his career, including a top 20 coverage grade from PFF back in 2012, but his play has dropped dramatically since that season. He'll need to show significant improvement to beat out some of the younger, more talented players he's competing with on this roster.
Jones has plenty of athletic potential
Jones surprisingly went undrafted this spring, but the guaranteed money in his contract suggests he was one of the most sought after free agents from this rookie class. This makes sense, as Jones' physical talent had some projecting him getting drafted as early as the fourth round. While his lack of size (5'9", 186) likely scared teams off on draft day, his explosive athleticism (including a 4.33 40 yard dash that led all rookie cornerbacks) suggests he has the talent to compete at this level. He clearly has the speed to recover if beaten deep, but will need to further develop his technique and ball skills to survive against the bigger, stronger receivers he'll face at the next level. He reportedly flashed his talent with several impressive pass break ups during OTAs and minicamps this spring, but the level of competition will be ratcheted up a few notches during training camp and a few more during preseason game action. He'll be an intriguing sleeper to watch during camp and should see plenty of preseason snaps.
Another productive corner who likely fell through the cracks on draft day due to a lack of size (5'9", 185), LeBlanc will have to continue to prove that his on-field play can outweigh his measurables at the next level. It would be surprising for him to earn his way all the way to an active roster spot, but Butler's presence on the top of the depth chart is proof enough that stranger things have happened. LeBlanc could be a candidate for the practice squad with a strong camp and preseason.
Despite earning All Conference honorable mention nods during his final two seasons at Illinois, Bentley went undrafted due to (you guessed it) a lack of size. Special teams will be key for the 5'10", 190 pound Bentley, who was one of the most dangerous return men in college football. With Jones ahead of him on the depth chart for a corner/returner role, the practice squad is likely the best case scenario for him.