Patriots Roster Reset: Market cornered on coverage talent

Patriots Roster Reset: Market cornered on coverage talent

It's not all that difficult to pinpoint what the Patriots have adopted in recent seasons as their philosophy in the secondary: They match up man-to-man and dare quarterbacks to find open throwing lanes. 

It's not all Bill Belichick wants to do. He mixes in zone coverages. The Patriots famously played more zone than usual in Super Bowl 53 to help them take down Sean McVay and the Rams.

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But relative to the rest of the NFL, the Patriots have been more man-heavy than most. In 2019, according to Sports Info Solutions, the Patriots played man-to-man 54 percent of the time. That led the league, tying the Lions. It was Belichick's third consecutive year leading the league in that category. The No. 3 most man-centric defense in 2019? The Dolphins. 

The connections are obvious. Between Matt Patricia in Detroit and Brian Flores in Miami, branches from the Belichick tree prefer man.

The Patriots' effective-as-they-are-creative pass-rush plans help them match up with opposing receivers who have to try to uncover quickly before their quarterbacks are forced to throw.

But the talent that the Patriots have on the back end — athletes who are not only fast but quick, not only strong at the line of scrimmage but smart enough to adjust on the fly — has helped allow them to go with man-to-man coverages so frequently. 

Lucky for them, in 2020, once again, they appear to have one of the most talented cover corner groups in the NFL. Let's dive into the depth chart.


Stephon Gilmore will be back after submitting his Defensive Player of the Year campaign in 2019. J.C. Jackson, the latest of many undrafted success stories in New England, will be back as well to shadow on the boundary.

Jonathan Jones is one of the more versatile chess pieces in the secondary for Belichick — he's played corner and safety in high-leverage spots — and looks like the team's top choice to play in the slot again. Joejuan Williams should get a crack at Year 2 after taking what was essentially a "red-shirt" season as a second-round rookie. (Though that didn't work out for 2018 second-rounder Duke Dawson.)

Jason McCourty looks like a lock this season as well, after the Patriots picked up his option for 2020. He's been guaranteed $500,000 and could provide the kind of leadership Belichick was looking for when he invested this offseason in bringing back both Devin McCourty and Matthew Slater.


Justin Bethel is a special teams ace whose release could save the Patriots a couple million in cap space. While a big-time component of what the Patriots do in the kicking game since he was acquired last season, a special-teams-only player with a base salary of over $1 million makes him a "bubble" player. 

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The Patriots are loaded at the position, making it hard for anyone to crack the roster. That's probably part of the reason why they didn't draft a player at the position. But they understand that there's strength in numbers at cornerback, that you're only as strong as your weakest link there. (Otherwise that link gets targeted again and again and again.) That's probably why they invested in multiple low-money corners this offseason despite their depth.

Undrafted rookie Myles Bryant is undersized (5-foot-9, 185 pounds) but showed some impressive playmaking skills at Washington. An undrafted rookie last year, D'Angelo Ross — also smallish at 5-9, 190 — impressed in camp but landed on IR for 2019. He's another "long shot" with clear ability.

Then there's Lenzy Pipkins, who entered the league in 2017 and was last with the Browns practice squad in 2018 after spending time on Patricia's active roster in Detroit. Pipkins spent last season out of football after being released by the Browns at the end of training camp. 


I know. I get it. Joejuan Williams is not a newcomer. But he might as well be after playing sparingly as a rookie.

He's being cross-trained going into his second year in the hopes that he might be able to provide some value both at corner and at safety, which could end up giving him much greater value to the Patriots than as a No. 5 corner behind Gilmore, Jackson, Jones and McCourty. The Patriots are an injury or two away from needing a body at either spot in the secondary and so Williams' development — at both spots — bears watching this summer.  


J.C. Jackson certainly benefits from being Stephon Gilmore's teammate. Not only does he get to watch one of the best in the world at his craft on a day-to-day basis. Jackson also gets to cover players who aren't the top targets on their teams. That gig is usually Gilmore's. But Jackson has an argument as one of the most underrated players in football over the course of the last two years — partly because he's playing in Gilmore's shadow.

Jackson's production has been tremendous, though. He had the lowest passer rating allowed in the NFL last season (37.0), and on deep passes he allowed just two of 16 targets to be caught. He intercepted five and tied for the best deep-ball coverage rating (0.0) in the NFL with Richard Sherman. In 2018, he allowed a league-low 42.0 passer rating. Devin McCourty called him the best tracker of the football he's played with in his Patriots career.

If he can continue to grow into a bonafide No. 1-playing-as-a-No. 2 corner in 2020, the Patriots secondary is once again going to have an argument as football's best.

NFL Rumors: Patriots re-sign undrafted rookie WR Isaiah Zuber

NFL Rumors: Patriots re-sign undrafted rookie WR Isaiah Zuber

The New England Patriots brought one of their undrafted rookies back into the fold on Wednesday.

Isaiah Zuber, a wide receiver out of Mississippi State, reportedly has been re-signed after being cut by the team a week ago.

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Zuber played three seasons at Kansas State before transferring to Mississippi State for his senior season, in which he tallied 14 receptions for 211 yards and two touchdowns. The 23-year-old's best college season came during his junior year, when he had 52 catches for 619 yards and five touchdowns.

The Patriots have had eight players opt out of the 2020 NFL season so far -- including WR Marqise Lee -- thus opening up roster spots for the undrafted free agents who initially were cut. Fellow UDFA receiver Will Hastings also was re-signed by the team shortly after being released.

NFL opt-outs: Complete list of players who won't play in 2020 season

NFL opt-outs: Complete list of players who won't play in 2020 season

NFL training camps officially began Tuesday, but there were some notable absences.

Kansas City Chiefs offensive lineman Laurent Duvernay-Tardif became the first NFL player to opt out of the 2020 season last Friday, citing health concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic.

Since then, multiple players have followed suit, continuing a trend across all major North American professional sports of players declining to participate in their seasons as COVID-19 persists in the United States.

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The Patriots especially have felt the impact of this trend: Eight New England players -- including star linebacker Dont'a Hightower -- already have opted out, the most of any NFL team.

Below is a running list of the players who have opted out of the 2020 NFL season, according to reports or team/player confirmations. The list is sorted alphabetically after the Patriots, with the date of the players' opt-outs in parentheses.

New England Patriots

RB Brandon Bolden (July 28)
OT Marcus Cannon (July 28)
S Patrick Chung (July 28)
LB Dont'a Hightower (July 28)
WR Marqise Lee (August 1)
OG Najee Toran (July 27)
FB Danny Vitale (July 27)
TE Matt LaCosse (August 2)

Arizona Cardinals

OT Marcus Gilbert (August 4)

Baltimore Ravens

OT Andre Smith (July 28)
WR/KR De'Anthony Thomas (July 27)

Buffalo Bills

CB E.J. Gaines (August 2)
DT Star Lotulelei (July 28)

Carolina Panthers

LB Jordan Mack (July 28)
LB Christian Miller (August 3)

Chicago Bears

DT Eddie Goldman (July 28)
S Jordan Lucas (August 3)

Cincinnati Bengals

OT Isaiah Prince (July 31)
DT Josh Tupou (July 31)

Cleveland Browns

DT Andrew Billings (August 4)
OL Drake Dorbeck (July 29)
OL Drew Forbes (July 29)
OL Colby Gossett (August 4)

Dallas Cowboys

CB Maurice Canady (July 27)
WR Stephen Guidry (July 28)
FB Jamize Olawale (August 2)

Denver Broncos

OT JaWuan James (August 3)
DT Kyle Peko (July 28)

Detroit Lions

DT John Atkins (July 29)
WR Geronimo Allison (August 2)
C Russell Bodine (August 5)

Green Bay Packers

WR Devin Funchess (July 28)

Houston Texans

DT Eddie Vanderdoes (July 28)

Indianapolis Colts

DB Rolan Milligan (August 5) 
LB Skai Moore (August 4)
DB Marvell Tell (August 5)

Jacksonville Jaguars

EDGE Larentee McCray (August 1)
DL Al Woods (July 31)

Kansas City Chiefs

OG Laurent Duvernay-Tardif (July 24)
RB Damien Williams (July 29)

Las Vegas Raiders

LB Ukeme Eligwe (August 4)
CB D.J. Killings (August 3)
DE Jeremiah Valoaga (August 3)

Los Angeles Rams

OT Chandler Brewer (July 31)

Miami Dolphins

WR Allen Hurns (August 4)
WR Albert Wilson (August 5)

Minnesota Vikings

NT Michael Pierce (July 28)

New Orleans Saints

TE Jason Vander Laan (July 28)
TE Cole Wick (July 28)

New York Giants

CB Sam Beal (August 5)
WR Da'Mari Scott (August 2)
LT Nate Solder (July 29)

New York Jets

OL Leo Koloamatangi (July 28)
LB C.J. Mosley (August 1)

Philadelphia Eagles

WR Marquise Goodwin (July 28)

San Francisco 49ers

WR Travis Benjamin (August 4)

Seattle Seahawks

OG Chance Warmack (July 27)

Tennessee Titans

OL Anthony McKinney (July 28)

Washington Football Team

DT Caleb Brantley (July 27)
LB Josh Harvey-Clemons (August 3)

Free Agents

G Larry Warford (July 28)