After the loss of star JC Jackson to the Chargers, the Patriots went on a cornerback spree in free agency and the draft. They signed CB Terrance Mitchell, reunited with Malcolm Butler in free agency, and drafted CBs Marcus Jones and Jack Jones in the draft. While this certainly added much-needed depth to the roster, it also added confusion about which corners will start in 2022.
Why Jalen Should or Shouldn’t Start
Jalen Mills started for the Patriots last season and was an important contributor to the team. While he started the season reasonably piously, he improved tremendously throughout the season. In his previous nine games, he allowed seven catches for 72 yards on an excellent rate of 33% completions.
Furthermore, his absence was very much felt when he was out during the season. For example, against Houston, his replacement Jojeuan Williams surrendered a 37-yard TD on his only target in a game where unheralded Davis Mills put up excellent numbers on the Patriots’ Defense. And against Buffalo in the wild-card game, the entire secondary struggled against Josh Allen and the Bills’ offense.
On the other hand, his numbers towards the beginning of the season in his first seven games were less impressive, allowing 28 completions, 368 yards, and four TD, including a game-ending touchdown to CeeDee Lamb against Dallas in week five that dropped New England two games under .500. Furthermore, despite seven passes defended, he didn’t have a single interception last season.
Verdict: Will Mills start?
Yes, he will almost definitely be a starter throughout the season. He was a major contributor last season, and based on how he finished; he could very well be the number one corner on the team.
Why Jonathan Should or Shouldn’t Start
Jonathan Jones is in the corner with the most experienced in the Patriots’ defensive system, having been on the team since being signed as an undrafted rookie in 2016. His career has far exceeded his draft position, with 261 tackles, seven interceptions, five forced fumbles, and 33 pass deflections. In addition, he is a speedy cornerback with a 40-yard dash time of 4.33 seconds.
His speed was especially relevant in what was thought to be his best career game. In the 2018 AFC Championship, Jones kept up with Tyreek Hill, limiting him to only one catch off three targets. That speed could be crucial given that the Patriots are now facing Hill twice a year. Overall, his tape shows his ability to run vertically down the field and his awareness of where the ball is.
However, his production has decreased a bit since his best years in 2018 and 2019, and he has had injury trouble, because of which he only played in a total of six games last year. As a result, he has been in and out of starting roles for the team and was inconsistent last year, allowing catches on 68% of targets and an opposing QB Rating of 103.8.
Verdict: Will Jonathan Jones start?
I predict that Jonathan Jones will start week one due to his experience in the system, especially as so many corners are coming in as rookies or first-time Patriots. However, he will likely be replaced in the middle of the season. However, if he can play near his best form, he may stay in that starting slot.
Why Malcolm Butler Should Or Shouldn’t Start
While he is technically coming to the Patriots off free agency, Malcolm is a career Patriot after time in Arizona and Tennessee. Despite being undrafted in his four years in New England, he was extremely successful. While he isn’t the fastest player in raw speed, his agility allowed him to follow and keep up with any receiver.
He has had great awareness of where the ball and the player are and has even been successful in corner blitz situations. He’s a true ball hawk with 82 career-deflected passes and 17 interceptions and prevented several potential touchdowns in his career. He also has had a penchant for the big moments, none bigger than Super Bowl XLIX against Seattle, where his game-saving tackle of Jermaine Kearse, followed by a game-winning interception of Russell Wilson in the end zone, will remain entrenched in Patriots’ lore.
There are some drawbacks to Malcolm’s potential as a starting corner as he is now. However, Malcolm’s speed, with a 4.62-second 40-yard time, has never been his strength. Especially as a 32-year-old player, and with the NFL only getting faster. Furthermore, he is coming off having spent an entire year injured in 2021, and there will certainly be questions about where he is physical.
Verdict: Will Malcolm Butler start?
His age and recent injury troubles will likely keep him out of the starting spot in week one, but look for him to get playing time early and for that playing time to ramp up throughout the season. My prediction is that while he won’t be a starter to begin the season, he will start games, and if he can be in great physical shape, he could be a starting corner to end the season.
Why Marcus Jones Should or Shouldn’t Start
Bring on the confusion and battle of the Jones: Mac, Jack, Marcus, and Jonathan, three of whom are cornerbacks. Marcus was drafted in the third round by the Patriots largely because of his speed. His 40-yard time of 4.38 seconds is one of the fastest in the position, and his tape displays his vertical and horizontal speed on the field and his ability to change direction quickly.
As an athlete, Marcus is a menace. As a cornerback, however, his stats in college were somewhat mediocre, with nine interceptions and 31 passes defended in four seasons. His awareness of the receiver, the ball, and the route can use some work. His career has shown him to be a jack of all trades but master of none.
Verdict: Will Marcus Jones start?
No. Marcus will certainly see the field. His athleticism will see him play on special teams, and his kick and punt returning stats in college could make him a real contender to be the Patriots’ top returner after the departure of Gunner Olszewski. However, as a corner, he needs more practice reps and a couple of seasons’ worth of development.
Why Jack Jones Should or Shouldn’t Start
Jack Jones added to the Patriots’ corner haul in the draft in the fourth round. The all-Pac 12 cornerbacks struggled to gain a solid footing and start his college career in a poor defensive system at USC, but leaving LA did him good. In his time at Arizona State, he recorded 92 tackles, six interceptions, 20 deflected passes, and even scored a touchdown. His tape showed his ability to get after the ball while keeping up with routes and providing extremely tough coverage.
While he’s not the fastest guy, he is extremely shifty and has a great IQ for the game. He is also a versatile, physical corner who can be effective in pass rush contexts and even had a strip sack as a Sun Devil and had five forced fumbles in total at ASU.
His speed does pose a bit of a weakness, however. His 40-yard time of 4.51 seconds isn’t slow, but it’s not at the top of the position group either. Coupled with his smaller frame at only 5’11”, it could limit his ability to impose in the fast, physical NFL.
Verdict: Will Jack Jones start?
Yes, but not in week one. He will likely need a few weeks to fully adjust when he still gets some game time to acclimate to NFL defenses. However, his skill set and intuition as a corner will certainly make him an important factor for the Patriots this season.
Why Terrance Mitchell Should or Shouldn’t Start
The signing of Terrance Mitchell from Houston brings a jolt of veteran presence to the secondary. His career stat line of 233 tackles, 55 passes defended, and seven interceptions in 68 games is a good line. With stints at five different NFL teams before this, he comes into New England with meaningful and diverse experiences.
His ability to make catches difficult for the receivers he is on in gameplay stands out. He has an elite intelligence for the game and can read routes and stay with receivers faster than him. He’s also a physical player and adept tackler who can contain the damage after the catch. All of these skill sets are why he has achieved some success in the NFL and could make him an important Patriot.
With a 4.63 second 40-yard dash time, which is certainly slower at his current age of 30, his speed is a major concern, especially given the speedy guys at receiver in the division. Furthermore, with a career total of seven interceptions (albeit nine forced fumbles), his ability to force turnovers isn’t his strong suit.
Verdict: Will Terrance Mitchell start?
No, but barely. Terrance is knocking at the door of the starting corner spot and will likely get plenty of game time and even perhaps a couple of starts. His experience and natural traits as a corner certainly help him, but his relative lack of athleticism could limit his role.
For this article, other Patriots cornerbacks such as Myles Bryant or Joejuan Williams, who will likely focus more on gaining a roster spot than a starting spot, will be left off. However, the cornerback room looks like a deep, formidable, competitive group.
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