ALLEN PARK, Michigan — Today we continue our Camp Battles series with a look at one of the most competitive positions on the roster: cornerback.
The Patriots may have confounded Sean McVay and the Rams with their zone looks in the secondary during Super Bowl LIII, but they've built themselves as a team that is going to rely on man-to-man coverages on a week-to-week basis. Stephon Gilmore is one of the best in the business. J.C. Jackson excelled in man as a rookie. Joejuan Williams, at 6-foot-4, looks like a matchup weapon for oversized wideouts and tight ends.
Based on the personnel they've acquired, they seem to have an answer for every body type from water bug slots to Stretch Armstrongs on the outside. But can they keep as many as seven corners on the 53-man roster, as we posited when we released our first roster projection of the summer?
There could be some hard decisions coming at this position group come September. One of them could be having to choose between a couple of youngsters in the room: Duke Dawson and Keion Crossen. Both could certainly end up sticking, but let's take a look at what each has to offer.
TALE OF THE TAPE
Dawson: Second-round pick in 2018, 5-10, 198 pounds
Crossen: Seventh-round pick in 2018, 5-10, 185 pounds
Dawson: His versatility at the University of Florida allowed him play all over the secondary, but eventually he landed in the slot. It made sense that the Patriots made him a second-rounder because if he projected as a representative option at that position, that would've been (essentially) a starting spot taken care of. Teams play so much sub defense these days that slot corners are, for all intents and purposes, starters. Dawson's physicality at the line of scrimmage, his instincts, and his ability to tackle made him seem like an ideal fit for the "star" position in Bill Belichick's defense. Dawson suffered a hamstring injury last summer and was placed on IR. He was re-activated mid-season, but he didn't see any game action.
Crossen: Speed. Crossen was one of the most impressive athletes in the draft last spring. He clocked a 4.32-second 40-yard dash at Wake Forest's pro day to go along with a 10-foot-11 broad jump, a 39.5-inch vertical and a 6.67-second three-cone. He wasn't invited to the combine, but if he was, his 40 would've been tied for fastest among all corners. His vertical would've been second. His three-cone and broad jump would've been third. "He showed up on a big stage just from a workout perspective," Nick Caserio said when Crossen was drafted. "He really blew it out of the water." He played just 39 snaps defensively as a rookie, but eight of those came against the Chiefs in the AFC title game when he helped to double-cover one of the fastest players in the league in Tyreek Hill. Crossen became one of the team's top special-teamers by season's end, and that'll likely be his path to a roster spot again this year. He has had a few pass breakups in one-on-one spots this summer, and he had an interception in seven-on-seven work late in Monday's practice with the Lions. He's also consistently seen reps as a gunner on the second-team punt unit.
Dawson: He's starting over again in his second year. Though Dawson remained in the Foxboro area while on IR, though he went to meetings and was at the facility, he wasn't able to practice for a long stretch during the season. When he finally made it back to practice and onto the active roster, the team felt as though he wasn't one of their best options on game days. As with any player who misses time injured, there's ground to make up there. Camp this summer hasn't always treated Dawson kindly. He picked rookie Jarrett Stidham early on in a red-zone rep, and he later broke up a pass to Braxton Berrios on an impressive rep. But he's been beaten in one-on-one coverage by Ryan Davis and Dontrelle Inman, and he had two more one-on-one reps where he would've been flagged for penalties. In Detroit, on Monday, he was targeted four times and allowed three receptions.
Crossen: Crossen also would've been flagged for a penalty on one one-on-one rep early in camp and he was beaten by Damoun Patterson during a one-on-one rep on Day 6. He was also victimized on two of Jakobi Meyers' acrobatic grabs during the first seven days of workouts this summer. Despite having great speed, that hasn't made Crossen immune to being beaten deep, and despite having made a few plays on the football this summer we rarely see him on the field with players you'd consider defensive regulars.
AND THE EDGE GOES TO...
Dawson. Every year, it seems, the Patriots have a little-known defensive back who impresses as a special-teamer. Every year, it seems, that player gets overlooked by those of us in the media who watch every training camp practice as closely as we can. Instead, the players who pop defensively on a handful of occasions catch our eye and the kicking-game mavens become afterthoughts. Is that happening again here? Maybe. Crossen showed he had real value as a special-teamer last fall, and even if he doesn't contribute much defensively, Belichick still may hold onto him. But would Belichick pass up the chance to keep a second-round pick who has yet to show what he can do in a regular-season game? Never say never, but I highly doubt it. The team has invested too much in Dawson not to give him a chance to make an impact. Both players could very well end up on the 53-man roster for Week 1 (as I projected here), but if it came down to choosing between them? I'd lean Dawson at the moment.
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