FOXBORO -- The last time the Patriots had all four of their top corners healthy and ready to go was back in Week 4.
It was the first play of the second half of their loss to the Panthers. Malcolm Butler was on one side of the field. Eric Rowe was on the other. Stephon Gilmore was on the bench. Jonathan Jones was sidelined as well, catching his breath after covering a Stephen Gostkowski kick.
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Ten weeks later, the picture at that position has changed.
Butler, though relatively inconsistent, has remained in the starting lineup. Gilmore suffered a concussion in Week 5, missed four games, and has returned to perform as one of the best in the league at his position over the last few weeks. Jones has emerged as one of Bill Belichick's most dependable defensive backs and a regular in the slot.
Rowe injured his groin on the first play of the third quarter against Carolina and missed the next two months of play. He returned to action last weekend in Orchard Park to a role (19 snaps) that was far different than the one he left when he ever-so-briefly supplanted Gilmore.
In Week 2, Rowe replaced Butler as a starter before injuring his groin for the first time.
After missing as much time as he has, Rowe knows it could take some time before he finds himself near the top rung of the depth chart again. Gilmore, Butler and Jones all seem to have a firm grasp on their current gigs.
“For me personally, my focus is on working back into the defense, trying to contribute any way I can,” he said Wednesday. “In Buffalo, I was in the backup role. I was just happy to be out there . . . I don’t want to be the guy that they throw out there and then I mess up. That would really mess me up mentally. So right now, whatever role I have, I’m just like, ‘You’ve got to take advantage of it.’ "
Against the Bills, late in the game, Rowe broke up the one pass sent his way. And with Gilmore out for a short span of time earlier in the contest, he got the call. His opportunities were short, but he seemed to make the most of them.
Indications are that Rowe's groin injury is one that will need to be managed for the remainder of the year, but he could find himself back on the field more regularly if he's able to recapture the form that allowed the Patriots to trust him as they did during the season's first month.
At the very least -- with Butler and Gilmore both improved over where they were to start the season -- Rowe provides the Patriots with an element of depth at the corner position that would be the envy of many teams.