Throw away everything that you think you know.
My good friend Mark Daniels of the Providence Journal noted something interesting on Twitter today: there are a ton of rumors that the New England Patriots could take a cornerback very early in the 2019 NFL draft.
I listed cornerback as the second-smallest need for the team roughly a week ago. The Patriots have First Team All Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore under through 2021, quality veteran Jason McCourty under contract through 2020, and rising stud J.C. Jackson just finished his rookie season. When 2018 second round pick Duke Dawson can’t crack the line-up because of all the talent ahead of him on the roster, and when that talent should be back for at least two more years, cornerback should be a pretty small need.
Or at least that’s what I thought. NESN’s Doug Kyed, FMIA’s Peter King, and MMQB’s Albert Breer disagree.
“The Patriots are most likely to take a defensive tackle, cornerback or quarterback at the end of the first round, sources have indicated to NESN.com,” Kyed reported. “The Patriots also could trade out of the first round altogether if the right players already have come off of the board.”
“New England: Best corner, edge player or receiver,” King wrote in his mock draft. “I’d take Greedy Williams, the corner from LSU. Serious top 10 prospect in October, and nothing happened to knock him down other than the fact that so many other corners are close to him in ability. Pats can dip into deep wideout/tight end market at 56, 64 or 73 overall, or with a trade. The tight end who might fit well is Texas A&M’s Jace Sternberger—if the Patriots think he can block well enough in their scheme. He can stretch a defense.
“I’ve been told by a bunch of people to keep an eye on Vanderbilt’s Joejuan Williams as a potential fit in New England,” Breer wrote in his draft notes. “And maybe not necessarily strictly as a corner—with the idea being he could fit into a hybrid role like Patrick Chung’s (playing tight ends, supporting against the run, etc.). One scout I spoke with Sunday even pointed to a comment Bill Belichick made at his pre-draft presser to back up the idea: “This is another year where there’s a lot of big receivers—6’4”, 225, 230, whatever they are—I mean, somebody’s going to have to cover those guys one of these days.” So file that one away.”
“Bill Belichick is always looking ahead,” Breer added in his mock draft. “[And there’s a future] need to match up with bigger receivers and athletic tight ends. The Patriots have had Patrick Chung in that role for a while. They could find another, bigger version of him. And I think that’s what they’ll see in this guy [Williams], rather than just lining up as a corner like most are doing.”
I can already hear the groans since the Patriots haven’t had much success with early round defensive backs. Bill Belichick has drafted a defensive back in the first or second round 11 times since 2000 and it hasn’t been pretty.
Devin McCourty (2010 first round pick) is the only clear-cut success after switching from cornerback to safety, while Patrick Chung (2009 second round pick) only panned out in his second-go-round in New England. The next best defensive back is…Brandon Meriweather (2007 first round pick)? Eugene Wilson (2003 second round pick)?
The others include Terrence Wheatley (2008 second round pick), Darius Butler (2009 second round pick), Ras-I Dowling (2011 second round pick), Tavon Wilson (2012 second round pick), Jordan Richards (2015 second round pick), and Cyrus Jones (2016 second round pick). It’s too early to evaluate Duke Dawson (2018 second round pick), but the track record is not great.
In fact, I’d argue that the team’s track record in the third and fourth rounds is far stronger. Players like Asante Samuel (2003 fourth round), Ellis Hobbs (2005 third round), James Sanders (2005 fourth round), Logan Ryan (2013 third round), and Duron Harmon (2013 third round pick) all have a case to be considered selections just as good as the non-McCourty top picks (if you only look at Chung’s first stint).
When multiple, well-connected writers like King, Breer, and Kyed are sharing the same rumors, there’s probably some fire to this smoke, and so it’s worth looking at the defensive backs that could fit the criteria laid out.
Breer highlights what Belichick said about needing big defensive backs to cover the big receivers about the enter the league, and I wonder if Belichick has a new role in mind for his defense. Chung played some defensive end and outside linebacker for the Patriots last season, in addition to covering players in the slot and at safety, and I wonder if the team would want a larger player than Chung to take that hybrid role.
New England added Obi Melifonwu, a 6’4, 225 pound safety, to the roster last year and that could be the blueprint: a player big enough to stand their ground on the edge of the line of scrimmage and athletic enough to cover running backs and tight ends.
There are a couple players that might fit that mold. Breer points out 6’4, 210 pound Vanderbilt defensive back Joejuan Williams, who could be a pick in the first three rounds, while I would also point out 6’2, 215 pound Kentucky cornerback Lonnie Johnson, who ESPN’s Mel Kiper had going to the Patriots in the third round in his latest mock draft (my analysis of which has not aged well). I would add in 6’2, 205 pound Penn State cornerback Amani Oruwariye as another day 2 option, too.
I don’t know if the 6’2, 185 pound Greedy Williams fits the mold, but there are a bunch of cornerbacks that could be available at the end of the first round for New England. There is a lot of depth at defensive tackle and pass rusher that could push some good players down the draft board. Perhaps that’s what the Patriots are keeping their eye out for.
I still think the Patriots should use their first round pick on one of the elite defensive tackles that should still be on the board, or on a quarterback to get that fifth-year option, but now I’m convinced that the Patriots will use one of their early draft picks on a defensive back. Hopefully they’ll have better luck than in their other recent drafts.