Patriots

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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Curran: Are Patriots fans wishing away the final years of a kicking savant?

Curran: Are Patriots fans wishing away the final years of a kicking savant?

SUDBURY – It’s the last Saturday before training camp and on this blue sky/no cloud/light breeze afternoon, Stephen Gostkowski is working a stopwatch at a youth football camp at Lincoln-Sudbury High School.

Paid, not paid, I have no idea (probably paid, though). Still, the second-longest tenured Patriot is giving the organizers their money’s worth in terms of involvement and enthusiasm. I snap a shot of Gostowski timing a pack of tweens leaning for the tape in a 40-yard dash and tweet it out. 

A total of two replies come back. The second one asks, “When are they gonna cut his bum ass? Lost them the AFCCG in '15, almost lost them the SB in '16, missed a FG in SB 52.” 

It’s Twitter so the “ACKNOWLEDGE MY BLOODTHIRSTY CANDOR!!!” factor enters into our friend’s ruthless panning of the third most accurate kicker in NFL history 

But @DrJones37 isn’t on an island either.

Gostkowski is a two-time All-Pro, four-time Pro Bowler who’s made 340 of 388 field goals and 593 of 599 PATs in the 11 regular seasons since 2006. He’s missed just 10 of 140 postseason kicks (field goals and PATs) . And plenty of New Englanders sneer at the mention of his name and can’t wait to see his allegedly bum-ass shrinking over the horizon.

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Gostkowski’s perceived sin against Patriots football isn’t really the misses DrJones correctly catalogued. It’s the absence of season-saving or Super Bowl clinching kicks that his predecessor Adam Vinatieri made. Even now, a dozen years after he fled for more money and kinder kicking conditions with the Colts, Hall of Fame-bound Automatic Adam throws a shadow Gostkowski can’t escape.

And there’s no way to change that. Vinatieri made the most memorable field goal in NFL history in the Snow Bowl and validated that kick with the OT game-winner a half-hour later. Two weeks after that, he creased a 48-yarder in New Orleans to win Super Bowl 36. Two seasons later, he clinched Super Bowl 39 with another relative bomb against the Panthers.

It doesn’t matter that he was an 82 percent regular-season kicker with the Patriots or that he was 1 for 3 on field goals in SB39 and 26 of 37 overall in the playoffs while here. Vinatieri’s makes were so massive that misses were forgiven and forgotten. With the “money on the table,” as the late Gil Santos would say, you could start packing up your stuff when Vinatieri was kicking.

It’s not supposed to feel like that. But since it once did, clutch-kicking nirvana is seen as a standard. Gostkowski’s never measured up to it.

In contrast to Vinatieri, Gostkowski’s PAT miss at Denver in the 2015 AFC Championship is probably his most memorable kick https://www.nbcsports.com/boston/new-england-patriots/gostkowski-sick-about-missed-pat-was-key-loss . Even though he hadn’t missed one all season in spite of the NFL’s pushing the kick back 15 yards in 2015 (with the Patriots hearty support), even though he held the NFL record for consecutive PATs made, that miss cost the Patriots dearly against noodle-armed Peyton Manning and – in large part – kept the team from getting a shot at the very vulnerable Panthers in the Super Bowl.

That miss begot a 2016 slump that was capped by an “Oh, shit!” PAT miss in the Super Bowl that was immediately followed by a botched onsides kick.

Those are the “Yeah, but…” trump cards slammed down in front of anyone who wants to argue the merits of Gostkowski.

And with the 34-year-old entering the final year of his current contract, the chance looms that the Good Riddance Gostkowski crew may realize its wish.

And then realize what it really feels like when every kick is closer to a coin flip than a layup.

For the past three seasons, 17 teams made more than 85 percent of their regular-season field goals. My math tells me that those 15 teams – nearly half the league – live in Puckertown.

Nine teams were under 80 percent last year. There were eight in 2016 and just three in 2015. By contrast, Gostkowski’s been south of 90 percent once since 2013 (84.4 percent in 2016).

MORE FROM TOM E. CURRAN

Even if Gostkowski hasn’t been as steady as a metronome, he’s a damn sight better at kicking field goals and PATs than 90 percent of the league. Not to mention the fact he’s accustomed to the kickoff nuances the Patriots demand as they consistently try to win field position.

On Saturday, Gostkowski acknowledged the passage of time since he was a rookie in 2006.

“It’s a good and a bad thing,” he said. “I have some white hairs in my beard now. Getting a little thin up top. It’s a blessing to think that I would have played professional sports for over a decade and going into my 13th year. I’ve got nothing but gratitude and thankfulness.”

Asked by ESPN’s Mike Reiss if he’s in a year-to-year mode at this point, Gostkowski answered, “I really don’t think like that. You reassess things every year. It’s easy to say after a year, ‘I might do this or I might do that…’ but as long as I’m happy, healthy and good I’m gonna do it.”

The Patriots report on Wednesday and camp opens for real on Thursday. This is his 12th camp – two more than Vinatieri was here for.

“It’s like the first day of school. Even though we’ll see how I feel three weeks from now. But I really do look forward to it,” Gostkowski said. “Sometimes having a little too much free time can be dangerous. When you play football you’re used to someone telling you what to do and where to be and you kind of miss that.”

It takes some perspective to appreciate that you’ve got it good even when it’s not always perfect. 

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Patriots sign Sony Michel to rookie contract

Patriots sign Sony Michel to rookie contract

First round running back Sony Michel officially signed his rookie contract with the New England Patriots Sunday. 

The 31st overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft will receive the standard rookie deal for first round picks, which is four years with a team option for a fifth season. 

Michel will join James White, Rex Burkhead, Mike Gillislee and newcomer Jeremy Hill in the New England backfield. 

The Patriots begin training camp on Thursday, July 26th, but rookies report today, so Michel signed his deal just in time to attend his first camp as an NFL running back. 

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