It’s the number of cornerbacks on the New England Patriots’ roster as the 2015 NFL draft draws near. And it’s a number that was subtracted from before it was added to during the first wave of free agency.
With both starters from last season’s team now on other teams, New England went out and signed three veterans into the mix in Chimdi Chekwa, Bradley Fletcher and Robert McClain in March. But there may soon be another to account for this month.
Bill Belichick, Nick Caserio and the Patriots’ war room may see April 30 as an opportunity not to replace Darrelle Revis or Brandon Browner, but to reshape the corner position itself. And with the rights to pick No. 32 overall at the end of the first round, several names could be in consideration should the organization opt to stay put.
Here’s a glance down four cornerbacks to keep an eye on there, with videos courtesy of DraftBreakdown.com.
Kevin Johnson, Wake Forest
Johnson played in 47 games over his Demon Deacons career, starting 41. He finished with 189 tackles, seven interceptions, 38 pass deflections and three forced fumbles. And as a redshirt senior in 2014, the 6-foot, 188-pound cornerback allowed a total of 24 completions, and was named second-team All-ACC after starting every contest.
An invite to the NFL Scouting Combine in February, Johnson went on to post a 6.79 three-cone drill, a 3.89 short-shuttle, as well as a 41.5-inch vertical jump and 130-inch broad – all placing in the top tier at the position.
Projected as a top-25 selection on April 30, No. 9 may have a new home by the time the Patriots are on the clock. He is, however, a corner built for man coverage more so for his athleticism and technique than his frame. And there’s something to be said for that. While wiry for the outside and inconsistent in terms of open-field tackling, Johnson is skilled enough to stay on an island. His hand use reroutes receivers. And the way in which he flips his hips out of a low-to-the-ground backpedal has allowed him to stay in stride down the field. A fluid cover corner with experience jumping underneath routes via zone coverage, Johnson plays the part more than he looks it.
Marcus Peters, Washington
Peters played in 35 games at the University of Washington, but was dismissed from the football team in November after a series of run-ins with the coaching staff. As a result, there are several questions left unanswered when it comes to the enigmatic talent. It is his talent, though, that figures to keep Peters in the first round later this month.
The 6-foot, 197-pound redshirt junior recorded 129 tackles from 2012 onward, adding 11 interceptions, a touchdown return, as well as 35 pass breakups. He attended the combine in Indianapolis – where he had a formal interview with the Patriots – and proceeded to clock a 4.53 40-time, a 7.08 three-cone and a well-placed 11.26 60-yard shuttle.
A strong-armed cornerback who competed hard in press-man against the top wideouts in the Pac-12, there are far fewer concerns about Peters’ play. His burst and straight-line speed are two that could be an issue, as he has shown struggles when beat off the snap and forced to recover deep. His jams and physical nature tend to extend beyond the five-yard bubble as well. Even so, when Peters squares at the line and holds his ground, the good outweighs the bad. He will battle for contested catches, and he will win his share.
Jalen Collins, Louisiana State
Collins started only 10 games in his LSU career, appearing in a total of 39 to collect 90 tackles, three interceptions and 19 pass deflections. He started seven contests in 2014, after starting just the first two games the year prior. And in 2012, the corner started one and was named to the Freshman All-SEC team.
The reason for that steakiness is unclear. In a sense, so is Collins. His length, size and speed project him as a corner who can both cover ground and control it. His lack of starting experience, meanwhile, makes him a projection in a different use of the word. The 6-foot-1, 203-pound redshirt junior ran a 4.48 40-yard dash at the combine, along with a 6.77 three-cone, and leaped for a 36-inch vert and 124-inch broad. And at this time, it appears Collins’ cornerback ability is still catching up with his physical ability.
Collins has shown a tendency to let receivers out of their release early on, and how he transitions out of press has shown some deliberate movement in his footwork. He will get turned around along the sidelines, and he will get out-shifted on double-moves. But ultimately, Collins’ ability to glide with receivers downfield, and his range to eclipse receivers for the ball from there, are two sought-after qualities. If his technique can grow to accompany his athleticism and instincts, he’ll be a better NFL player than he was a college one.
Byron Jones, Connecticut
Jones was a fifth-year senior for the Huskies in 2014, and proceeded to start UConn’s first seven games before his season ended with a torn labrum that required surgery. And with that, he concluded his collegiate career with 39 starts – between cornerback and safety – 223 tackles, eight interceptions and 18 pass deflections.
But it was the 6-foot-1, 199-pounder’s performance at the combine put him on the first-round radar. Or, from the outside looking in, perhaps he was there all along. Jones posted a 44.5-inch vertical and a 147-inch broad jump at Lucas Oil Stadium, which surpassed the combine record Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins cracked in 2013 by eight inches, as well as the world record set in 1968. Jones also ran 6.78 three-cone, a 3.94 20-yard-shuttle and a 10.98 60-yard shuttle there in February, marking one of the most complete performances the event’s history.
Yet Jones’ performance before his trip to Indianapolis aligned closely with what he did there. According to Steve Palazzolo of Pro Football Focus, quarterbacks had a passer rating of 26.3 when targeting the cornerback last season. And there’s merit in why. A team captain who’s accustomed to off-coverages and setting his back to the boundary in zone, Jones played cerebral. He recognized routes and undercut them. He played fast, tracking down route-runners in the air and on the ground. And while he wasn’t always agile when changing directions and commanding when pressing, Jones played with the understanding of positioning. In turn, the gap between his athleticism and his play may be closer than it once appeared. He reportedly met with the Patriots before his pro day.