Patriots

Prototypical Patriots: Griffin's athleticism makes him intriguing fit at corner

Prototypical Patriots: Griffin's athleticism makes him intriguing fit at corner

The Patriots may soon find themselves back in the cornerback market even after adding free-agent cover man Stephon Gilmore this offseason.

There's no guarantee that Malcolm Butler will be in the fold in New England in 2017, and even if he is, it's safe to say that no team -- no matter how flush with cover men they may be -- will turn its nose up at a good player at the position. It's simply too important. 

PHIL PERRY'S PROTOTYPICAL PATRIOTS DRAFT PREVIEW

This year's draft class is loaded with talented corners, which means that Bill Belichick and his staff could watch a first-round player slip deep into the second round and potentially make a move to add him to a group that already features Gilmore, Butler, Eric Rowe, Cyrus Jones and special teams standout Jonathan Jones.

What do the Patriots typically like to draft at cornerback? They have a track record of grabbing great athletes with sound footwork who are willing tacklers. If you have experience playing man-to-man as well as zone, that's a plus. If you can play inside and out, that will also earn you points. Of course, production in big-time conference and special teams ability won't hurt you either.

There are so many draftable corners in this year's class that we've broken them up into two groups: Those who look like they'd be better fits primarily in the slot with the Patriots, and those who look like they could handle responsibilities outside the numbers for Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. 

Today we'll handle the outside guys, and on Monday we'll provide you with some names who could make their livings inside.

This is the third installment of a 12-part pre-draft series where we're looking into Prototypical Patriots at a variety of positions. To catch up on our first few cracks at this, head here for linebackers and here for safeties.

Sidney Jones, Washington, 6-feet, 186 pounds: Thought to be one of the draft's best corners before tearing his Achilles at Washington's pro day, Jones could slip into the second or third rounds and be looking at a redshirt rookie season. His 4.47-second 40-yard dash and 7.02 three-cone drill at the combine weren't elite markers of athleticism, but his toughness and his instincts to mirror receiver routes would make him an easy fit in New England if he makes a full recovery. The Patriots likely won't have a shot at top-end corners in this year's draft like Ohio State's Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley and Alabama's Marlon Humphrey, but if Jones slips because of his injury, they could end up with a Day 1 talent on Day 2.

Kevin King, Washington, 6-foot-3, 200 pounds: The Patriots don't typically draft the tallest, longest corners available, but they may be willing to make an exception for King. Despite his size, he's still one of the most explosive athletes in the class, which he proved in Indy when he ran a 4.43-second 40, jumped 39.5 inches in the vertical, and recorded top-notch times in the three-cone (6.56 seconds), 20-yard shuttle (3.89 seconds) and 60-yard shuttle (11.14 seconds). Other long corners in this draft -- Florida's Quincy Wilson and Teez Tabor, West Virginia's Rasul Douglas and Clemson's Cordrea Tankersley, for example -- simply don't bring the same kind of athleticism to the table. Keep in mind, even when the Patriots have acquired bigger corners, whether it's Gilmore, Rowe, Aqib Talib or Ras-I Dowling, they've all tested out as special athletes.

Fabian Moreau, UCLA, 6-feet, 206 pounds: Another corner who was injured during his pro day -- he suffered a torn pectoral while bench-pressing -- Moreau is an intriguing talent whose health could force him down draft boards. Athletically he checks every box -- 4.35-second 40, 38-inch vertical, 136-inch broad, 6.94-second three-cone -- and his technique has steadily improved as he's made the transition from running back to the defensive side of the football. He appears to carry with him all kinds of potential, and in a spot like New England -- where he may be able to take a back seat for a season -- could thrive. 

Cameron Sutton, Tennessee, 5-foot-11, 188 pounds: Sutton reportedly went through a private workout for the Patriots during the pre-draft process, and it's not hard to see why they'd be interested. Had it not been for a fractured ankle he suffered early in his senior year, he would have been a four-year full-time starter in the SEC. He's been touted as a strong leader and he's one of the most productive punt returners in this draft. He might eventually end up inside, but he could be a little light at the moment to play that spot in New England where its expected that slot corners will be effective against the run and against bigger targets in the passing game. Athletically he's not as freakish as some others in the class, but his 40 (4.52 seconds) and three-cone drill (6.81 seconds) fall into the range the Patriots have accepted in the past. 

Howard Wilson, Houston, 6-foot-1, 184 pounds: When Belichick went to speak at a coaches clinic hosted by Texas coach and former Houston head man Tom Herman, he might've had the opportunity to ask about this fascinating prospect. Howard's length, fluidity in coverage and strong ball skills should have defensive minds salivating, but he played just one season as a full-time starter, leaving some question marks as to what he might've done had he stayed in school for one more year. His long speed (4.57-second 40) could be better, but he's among the quickest corners in the draft (6.68-second three-cone, 3.94-second 20-yard shuttle), and he's a fearless tackler. Perhaps a move to the slot will benefit him down the line, but sticking a long, ball-hawking corner like this on some of the NFL's bigger wideouts will be an enticing opportunity for his next coach.

Shaquill Griffin, Central Florida, 6-feet, 194 pounds: Griffin is a first-round caliber athlete who could come off the board late thanks to all the talent in this year's crop. He was a top-five corner at the combine when it came to the 40 (4.38 seconds), the 60-yard shuttle (11.62 seconds), the vertical (38.5 inches) and the broad jump (132 inches). He was a top-10 performer in the three-cone drill (6.87 seconds), 20-yard shuttle (4.14 seconds). He had four picks and 15 pass breakups last season and is thought to be a dependable tackler. Even if he can't find the field defensively early on, his aggressive style and athleticism could make him an early special-teams contributor.

Brandon Wilson, Houston, 5-foot-10, 198 pounds: This is another prospect who made his way to Gillette Stadium recently for a visit, according to Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle. No surprise there. Why? He was a three-way player for the Cougars, and some experts believe he's such a good athlete that he has the ability to contribute at any or all of those spots at the next level. He had one of the more impressive pro-day workouts in the nation this year, running a 4.36-second 40-yard dash, jumping 41 inches in the vertical, 133 inches in the broad jump and benching 225 pounds 24 times -- eye-popping numbers for a 5-foot-10, 198-pound human being. Even if he never cracks the top of the depth chart at any of the positions listed here, he's so fast and explosive that he would seem to be a natural covering kicks. The Patriots may be even more focused than usual on the kicking game in this year's draft as both Matthew Slater and Nate Ebner hit contract years in 2017.

Jamal Agnew, San Diego, 5-foot-10, 185 pounds: At just about every position, there's a late-round prospect who receives little buzz but looks like a great match for the Patriots. For me, Agnew is that guy at corner. He barely cracks the physical measurements that the Patriots typically draft at the position, but he's an eye-popping athlete -- he ran two 40s in under 4.4 seconds at his pro day, beat the seven-second mark in the three-cone, broad-jumped 125 inches and got 16 reps on the 225-pound bench -- with a strong resume as a return man and a history of making plays coverage. He racked up 11 career interceptions and broke up 48 passes at San Diego, and against the run he doesn't hesitate to seek out contact. He'll be tabbed by some as a slot corner because of his size, but like Sutton, he may be a bit slight to take on that role in New England. Outside though? That could work. Small school . . . small frame . . . great athlete . . . good ball skills . . . aggressive run-supporter . . . overlooked during the pre-draft process . . . Remind you of any other Patriots corners you know?

Giardi: After getting schooled, Butler's got to be better

Giardi: After getting schooled, Butler's got to be better

When the Patriots signed Stephon Gilmore in the offseason and then managed to keep Malcolm Butler around, the consensus was not only might this be the best 1-2 punch at cornerback the team has ever had, but maybe, just maybe, it was the best duo in the NFL this season. 

Newsflash: it hasn’t been. Not even close. 

MORE PATRIOTS

The latest example comes from Sunday night in Denver. Gilmore returned from a three-game absence (concussion) to play well against Demaryius Thomas in that 41-16 win. The same can’t be said of Butler. He spent much of his day playing man-to-man versus Emmanuel Sanders and struggled mightily.

Butler’s issues started on the very first play. He got lost along the sidelines and surrendered a 31-yard catch. Butler initially had Sanders blanketed. The two were lined up outside the numbers along the left sideline. Based on the formation, and the alignment of safety Devin McCourty, it was pretty clear Butler was alone on an island. Sanders initially drove inside before straightening out his route. Then he cut sharply, working speedily to the flat. Butler had a good beat on the play but unwisely peeked into the backfield. That’s when Sanders turned up and found nothing but green grass.

“I would just say I’d just tip my hat to him,” said Butler. “It was a great route. He steered me in. Then he went up then went out then went back up so I thought that was it. It was a little more than I expected. You gotta learn from it and play it better next time.”

On the same drive, he was beaten again by Sanders, this time for 13 yards. The Pats defense tightened up and held Denver to a field goal but a pattern had already been established between the Patriots' 27-year-old cornerback and Sanders.

The next big play Butler coughed up came with 4:13 to play in the second quarter. Broncos QB Brock Osweiler summoned Sanders to come across the formation via motion but then sent him back as the wideout approached the tackle box. Butler overreacted, trying to jump out ahead of the motion while simultaneously looking into the backfield. It was then he realized Sanders had done an about-face. To his credit, Butler recovered and jumped on Sanders shortly after the snap of the ball, actually shoving the receivers’ right shoulder in an attempt to disrupt the pattern. 

As Sanders turned upfield, he appeared well-covered by Butler. But then another old habit that’s been hard for Butler to break appeared. He lost track of the ball once it took flight. Sanders slapped on the brakes and high-pointed the football while Butler watched, helplessly flat-footed. Chalk up another 23-yard gain.

“I would just say he underthrew it and I got pushed by,” said Butler. “I probably burst because I was expected the ball to come too. You just got to play it the best way you can. Things happen. He just made a great play. I was in good position but not good enough.”

Sanders caught one more pass on the drive, and should have had a touchdown in the second quarter, streaking past Butler toward the end zone. But Osweiler made a terrible throw, unable to even keep it in the field of play. Hence another field goal instead of a touchdown. Bullet dodged - and there were a few.

“You can’t win with three all day,” said Butler of the defense’s red-zone efficiency. “They’re very hard on us on protecting the red area and not giving up touchdowns in the red area. Bend but don’t break. That’s been the motto.”

The Patriots would break later and Sanders beating Butler was a part of it. The play coming about five minutes into the third quarter on Denver's only TD-scoring drive. The Broncos came out in trips, employing a bunch formation that had plagued the Patriots so often the first month of the season. Unlike then, the Pats handled communication perfectly and as Sanders worked toward the seam, Butler had good position and help toward the post, with safety Duron Harmon eyeballing Sanders the entire way. So did Butler do? He gave up outside leverage, with Sanders breaking hard to the flag. Butler’s footwork was a mess - he got spun around like he was auditioning for "Dancing With the Stars" - and was unable to recover until Sanders had picked up another 23 yards.

“Another good route,” said Butler. “He got me thinking inside and broke out. He’s a good player. A great receiver.”

There’s no denying Sanders’ talent, but Butler has got to be better and more consistent. He’s too often been lost in coverage or gotten caught gambling, eyeballing a big play that’s rarely come in 2017. With their issues up front, it’s the Pats secondary that’s going to have to lead the way. The corners have only occasionally played to the level expected of them. The clock is ticking. Thanksgiving is right around the corner and if you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: this is when the Patriots want to be playing their best football. About time Butler answered the call.