The Patriots finished 7-9 in 2020, their first losing season since 2000. There are many factors, such as late game execution and quality of opponents that caused the Patriots to stumble in 2020. But the biggest reason was a lack of personnel at several key positions. This four-part series looks at the four biggest areas New England needs to address in the offseason to return to contention next season.
Part Four: Defensive Back
When looking at the Patriots’ roster, defensive back does not initially jump out as a need. In fact, it is currently one of the stronger position groups on the team. However, there are significant changes looming that will cause Bill Belichick to do some building for the future on the back end of his defense.
Stephon Gilmore, the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year, has one year remaining on his contract and is significantly underpaid. If the team chooses not to pursue an extension, then Gilmore would be a prime trade candidate. If not, he would likely be playing his final season in New England in 2021. J.C. Jackson looks like a potential number one corner, but he will likely require a costly extension as a restricted free agent.
Jason McCourty also factors heavily into the cornerback mix, but he is an unrestricted free agent and is now 33 years old. Jonathan Jones is an excellent slot corner, so the Patriots are all set there. If McCourty and Gilmore are both gone in 2021, New England would be depending on JoeJuan Williams to make a jump forward. He has shown very little in his career thus far and the team should not bet solely on him being the answer. Myles Bryant flashed some serious potential in 2020, but his playing time was uneven and how he would handle a large role remains unknown.
The Patriots may look to add a free agent depth corner, but they would be better off using that money to work out an extension with Gilmore or Jackson. Draft wise, New England has more pressing needs so a day one pick of a corner is possible but not as likely as other positions. If they do choose to spend a first or second round pick the options include Patrick Surtain II, Caleb Farley, Jaycee Horn and Tyson Campell. Belichick may prefer to target a corner in the middle rounds of the draft; Asante Samuel Jr., Ambry Thomas, Thomas Graham and Camryn Bynum could all be available then.
In addition to corner, the Patriots would be smart to invest at least a middle to late round pick at free safety. In 2020, New England signed Adrian Phillips and drafted Kyle Dugger, both strong safeties who, with the return of Pat Chung, make that position one of the deepest on the team. Dugger also looks like a key piece of the defense for years to come. The situation at free safety is a bit murkier. Devin McCourty remains one of the best free safeties in the NFL, but he is in the final year of his contract and may decide to retire after the season, especially if his brother Jason is no longer with the team. Terrence Brooks is a solid role player, but not a high-quality starter like McCourty.
The Patriots could use some of their cap space to add an elite free agent safety, Justin Simmons, or a very good one in Anthony Harris. This could create a temporary logjam due to McCourty, however Belichick could find a way to get three safeties on the field. Tre Boston and Malik Hooker may be cheaper options, relative to Simmons and Harris, though Hooker is more of a hybrid strong/ free safety.
It is highly likely New England uses at least one draft pick, if not two, at safety. Options for a free safety in the first or second round include Paris Ford, Andre Cisco, and Jevon Holland. Later potential fits are Damar Hamlin, Ar’Darius Washington, Shawn Davis, and Devine Deablo.
The Patriots have several holes on their roster right now and although defensive back does not stand out as one, New England would be smart to invest in the position. They could very easily be without two of their top four corners in 2021 and their starting free safety by 2022. To prevent this area of strength from downgrading, Belichick should look to secure its future this offseason.