LOWELL, Mass. -- Justin Coleman wore a Patriots bucket hat, shading his eyes from the sun as he was reminded of the role he had earned in coach Bill Belichick's defense last season. He had somehow gone from a twice-cut, undrafted rookie free agent to New England's No. 3 corner and playing in 70 percent of the snaps during two playoff contests.

By any standard, it was a meteoric rise. But Coleman would just as soon forget it. 

"It's a new year," he said, visiting Sports International Football Camp at UMass Lowell on Tuesday. "It's a new year, new season. You have to forget about what happened last year. Last year doesn't really matter. It gave some coaches confidence that I can help them, but overall, you've got other players that are pretty good [on the roster], and things change. Players get better. Players get worse. But it gives me another opportunity to show what I can do."

Last summer, Coleman was preparing for his first professional training camp and hoping to land a roster spot with the Vikings as an undrafted rookie out of the University of Tennessee. Since then he's been flown back and forth across the country during stops at Seattle and New England, carved out a roster spot, and found himself covering receivers like Denver's Demariyus Thomas and Jacksonville's Allen Robinson as the Patriots tried to cope with injuries to their cornerback group.


It was a whirlwind year, one in which Coleman proved he was a more valuable commodity than his draft position -- or lack thereof -- would suggest. So coveted were his services that the Patriots kept him on the active roster even when they were hurting for healthy bodies and he was unavailable due to an injury of his own. The team didn't want to expose him to waivers, and it wanted to make sure he was an option for the stretch run if he was able to heal. 

"There were a couple of points in the season where it was a little bit of a strain to carry him, to be honest with you," Belichick said late last season. "But in the end, we felt like this was a guy that we needed and we liked the way he played when he played."

Coleman recorded perhaps his best performance of the year while wearing a cast on his hand in a Divisional Round win over the Chiefs. He played 43 of 68 snaps against the Broncos in the AFC title game and notched a hit on quarterback Peyton Manning. 

Nice as it was for Coleman to earn a regular role in the most important contests of the season, nice as it was to feel wanted, he understands he's far from a finished product as he prepares for his second pro camp.

After Patriots OTAs broke last month, Coleman made his way back to Tennessee, where he worked out with current and former Vols, focused on how he could improve on his eye-opening rookie season. Whether it's his ball skills, his agility, or his footwork in coverage, he admits there's plenty to refine.

"Everyday I try to put in something new, or stick with something I've been doing pretty good and work on my weaknesses and maintain my strengths," he said. "If you don't work on your craft, you'll lose it."

The Patriots have added several pieces to their cornerback room in order to combat some of the depth issues they experienced last season. They drafted Alabama corner Cyrus Jones with their first pick in the second round, and they picked up undrafted defensive backs Cre'Von LeBlanc, V'Angelo Bentley and Jonathan Jones to a room that already included last year's starters Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan. Second-year corner Darryl Roberts and veteran EJ Biggers will also vie for jobs this summer. 

Coleman knows the competition will be stiff, but if he's able to produce when given his opportunities, he'll be rewarded with more. Though he's putting last year behind him, he remembers that's how he stuck in 2015. 

"It always comes down to who's going to make the plays," Coleman said, "and who fits with the program."

Phil Perry can be followed on Twitter: @PhilAPerry