Stephon Gilmore

Could Melvin, Amukamara be answers at cornerback for Patriots?

Could Melvin, Amukamara be answers at cornerback for Patriots?

Before free-agency officially kicks off with the start of the new league year on Wednesday, we're answering a series of questions the Patriots could be asking themselves. Last week, we hit on tight end and if Jimmy Graham is a fit. Then we asked if Super Bowl champ Nigel Bradham is just the linebacker the Patriots need.  We also asked if Vikings free agent running back Jerick McKinnon could be in the Patriots plans. On Monday, we look at whether the Patriots can improve on the edge without making an over-the-top investment.

Today we're gauging the cornerback market for the Patriots. We know they missed on Aqib Talib. We know they passed on Richard Sherman. But who else is out there? 

First and foremost it's worth wondering the Patriots will add anyone here, period. They have Eric Rowe, who they clearly like. He saw time on Julio Jones in Super Bowl LI. He replaced Malcolm Butler in Week 2 of the regular season. He replaced Stephon Gilmore in Week 4 before being injured on the first snap of the second half. There's reason to believe he's considered a capable No. 2. 

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Beyond Rowe and Gilmore, the Patriots will have Jonathan Jones and Cyrus Jones in the mix for playing time as well as 2017 practice-squadders Ryan Lewis and Jomal Wiltz. 

That said . . . Bill Belichick's depth at corner isn't such that he and Nick Caserio can outright ignore the position this offseason. They could opt for a player in the draft, seeing as how it seems like a relatively deep group there this season. Or they could turn to a cost-effective player in free agency. 

So who's worth a look? 

Someone like Rahaan Melvin might be more the Patriots' speed. He played like a Pro Bowler for the Colts through 12 weeks of last season before suffering an injury, which may drop his number to a place where the Patriots would feel comfortable. Melvin had three picks and 10 pass breakups on 55 targets, leading to a 60.3 quarterback rating against last year. 

The Patriots known Melvin well from the eight games he played with the team in 2015, and so they'd understand what they'd be getting in terms of work ethic, practice habits, meeting-room comportment, etc. Melvin had a reputation as an even-keeled player who contributed primarily on special teams during his time in New England, but he showed last year that he could chip in as a capable corner with a long 6-foot-2, 195-pound frame. 

Morris Claiborne and Prince Amukamara, both 28, are out there as well, but it's unclear what the market will be for the former first-rounders. 

If the Patriots would rather look for someone to help them in the slot, there are a handful of players with good experience there. A couple of other former Patriots, Robert McClain (who spent training camp with the Patriots in 2015) and Leonard Johnson (four games with the Patriots in 2015) is available for slot duties. 

Adam "Pacman" Jones has some slot/punt-return versatility, and he's been informed by the Bengals that his 2018 option won't be picked up. Patrick Robinson, who was key to the Eagles' run to a title, is free. 

There are a couple of safeties -- Eric Reid and Kenny Vaccaro -- who can play in the slot as well, and they would provide the Patriots with some insurance and/or competition on the roster for box safety Patrick Chung. 

In all likelihood, the Patriots are who they are at corner. Left tackle, edge and linebacker all could be viewed as more important positions to address. But if the Patriots want to add some inexpensive depth to help boost their secondary, options are out there.

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Brady gave Gilmore the shirt off his back

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AP Photo

Brady gave Gilmore the shirt off his back

After Stephon Gilmore helped secure the AFC Championship for the Patriots with his breakup of Blake Bortles' fourth-down pass with less than two minutes to go, his quarterback had a little something for him.

Tom Brady gave Gilmore his game-worn jersey, Gilmore revealed in a Twitter Q&A on Saturday. 

Other Gilmore revelations: Receiver Brandin Cooks is the funniest Patriot. 

The Lions' Golden Tate is the most underrated receiver in the NFL.

What part of his game does he need to work on? 

Offseason plans?

Gilmore offered no insight on Malcolm Butler's Super Bowl benching (he wasn't asked to). And those reports of a tense atmosphere in New England?

With Butler's departure inevitable, Patriots' corner search is on

With Butler's departure inevitable, Patriots' corner search is on

Before free agency kicks off, and before we dissect the top college prospects entering this year's draft, we're taking a look at the Patriots on a position-by-position basis to provide you with an offseason primer of sorts. We'll be analyzing how the Patriots performed in 2017 at the position in question, who's under contract, how badly the team needs to add talent at that spot, and how exactly Bill Belichick might go about adding that talent. Today, we're looking at the position group that received more attention than any other during Super Bowl 52: Cornerback. 

OTHER ENTRIES IN THE SERIES

HOW THEY PERFORMED


No single position group experienced as many dips, climbs and dives as Patriots corners did during their rollercoaster season. In September alone, the communication was a mess, Malcolm Butler got benched, Stephon Gilmore got benched, and Eric Rowe suffered a serious groin injury that allowed Gilmore to quickly get his job back. Second-year special teams standout Jonathan Jones might've been the team's best cover man at that juncture. Then, as soon as Gilmore started to find his footing, he was diagnosed with a concussion. The group started to put it together in the second half with solid performances against the Raiders in Mexico City and the Bills in Buffalo. Gilmore was particularly strong as the season wore on, showing the man-to-man cover skills and the knack for getting his hands on footballs that made him one of the highest-paid players at his position last offseason. But in the end, in the Super Bowl, with Butler benched again, the group (outside of Gilmore, who played well against Philly) had too many letdowns in what was arguably the team's worst defensive performance of the season.

WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018?
Gilmore, Rowe, Jones, Cyrus Jones, Ryan Lewis, Jomal Wiltz

WHO ISN'T?
Butler, Johnson Bademosi

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED?

The Patriots played Rowe in prominent roles in each of the past two Super Bowls and he seems to be first in line to take over No. 2 duties with Butler certainly headed on to a new chapter in his career. Jonathan Jones showed in spurts that he could be an effective slot corner, but he suffered a season-ending injury in the Divisional Round and it's unclear what the Patriots will be expecting from him in 2018. Cyrus Jones is coming off of a torn ACL, and even before his injury, it looked like he may have a hard time cracking the regular rotation. This is one position -  like tackle  - that the Patriots don't want to be left thin. If we had to rank it, the need for another capable body would probably come in at about a 7 out of 10. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY?


There are a handful of relatively big names who will be on the market come March, including Butler. Trumaine Johnson of the Rams figures to be at the top of the class. Vontae Davis of the Colts is 29 and often injured, but in a corner-needy league, he shouldn't have much trouble finding a team. EJ Gains of the Bills could leverage his inside-out versatility to come away with a deal worth almost $10 million per year. Aaron Colvin of the Jaguars, Patrick Robinson of the Eagles, Nickell Robey-Coleman of the Rams and Leonard Johnson of the Bills give teams in need of slot help some options. Kyle Fuller of the Bears and Morris Claiborne of the Jets are two former first-rounders who've had up-and-down careers but showed last season they have still value on the outside. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT?

It feels like the best athletes at the high school and college levels are getting smarter. Or their coaches are. Once again, there's a deep group of athletes peppering the incoming draft class at corner, which is, of course, one of the highest-paying positions in football. (Why so many top-tier athletes are still playing running back, on the other hand, is beyond me.) Alabama's hybrid star in the secondary Minkah Fitzpatrick will be long gone by the time the Patriots pick. Same goes for Ohio State's undersized burner Denzel Ward and Iowa's ball-hawking 6-foot-1 cover man Josh Jackson, in all likelihood. At the bottom of the first round, though, players like Auburn's Carlton Davis (who has drawn comparisons to Richard Sherman because of his length and ball skills) and Colorado's Isaiah Oliver (a one-time Pac-12 decathlete with a 6-foot-1 frame) could be available. Would the Patriots want to invest a first-round pick at that spot? If they feel like they have good depth at the position already on the roster but want to take a flier on a mid-round selection, they could hope Louisville's Jaire Alexander (who dealt with injuries in 2017 that will probably hurt his draft stock) lasts into the third round. 

HOW CAN THE PATRIOTS ADDRESS IT?


One name that's sort of intriguing on the free-agency market is Davis'. You've heard tales similar players ending up in New England before. He's spent the majority of his career without much of a shot at a title - though his Colts made the AFC Championship Game in the 2014 season. He should be low-cost. He had season-ending groin surgery last year, was released in November and went unclaimed. He'll be 30 before the start of next season, but he may be worth a roll of the dice to help a relatively young Patriots secondary. If he doesn't pan out, no harm done. Hard to envision Belichick and Nick Caserio investing big money into this position with Gilmore on the roster, but maybe they'll deem one of the free-agent slot options worth a shot if he's cost-effective. Otherwise, the Patriots may try to take advantage of a draft that seems - at least right now - as if it's deeper at corner than it is at some other spots on the defensive side of the ball, like on the edge.

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