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.
Patriots Roster Reset: Offensive Line | Running Back | Quarterback | Wide Receiver | Tight End | Linebacker | Defensive Line | Safety
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.
LOCK ‘EM IN
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.
ON THE BUBBLE
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.
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.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH
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.