In the lead-up to New England Patriots training camp, with the first public practice scheduled for Thursday, it is timely to review each position on the roster with our annual “roster locks” series. After previously highlighting the running backs, wide receivers, defensive ends, linebackers, defensive tackles, and safeties, let’s move on to the cornerbacks:
Explaining the locks: Gilmore was the big-splash, free-agent signing from 2017 and enters the second season of the five-year, $65 million pact as the team's clear-cut No. 1 option. After some initial rocky moments integrating into the team's defensive system early last season, he settled in and was arguably playing his best football in the biggest games by the playoffs. He will be joined by Dawson, the team's second-round pick out of Florida (No. 56), as the Patriots transition at the position without Malcolm Butler (now in Tennessee). The 5-foot-10, 198-pound Dawson might initially project more to the slot, but he also played outside in college. Rowe could be viewed as an aggressive choice as a lock, but the combination of physical makeup (6-1, 205), cheap contract and experience in the system led me to put him in that category. While the Eagles made a few excellent plays on him in the Super Bowl, which might linger from a public-perception standpoint, Rowe ultimately settled down in the game. Meanwhile, the Patriots are always thinking about special teams with their depth-based roster spots, and Jones -- a third-year speedster out of Auburn -- is one of their core players in the kicking game.
Roster management: The Patriots project to keep five to six cornerbacks on the initial 53-man roster and have a handful of younger players with some unique traits who flashed in spring practices. Now the question is whether they can push for roster spots. Special-teams contributions, as is often the case, will likely be tied to their chances to stick. That group includes the 6-foot, 195-pound Lewis, who spent last year on the practice squad and caught my eye in spring practices with ball disruption and good technique at the line of scrimmage as he gave receiver Chris Hogan some trouble getting off press coverage. Lewis grew up in a football family -- his father, Will, was a longtime NFL front-office executive -- and seems to be mature beyond his years. The 5-foot-9, 201-pound Jackson, an undrafted free-agent out of Maryland, took quality first-unit reps in a few spring practices and didn't look out of place. Crossen, a seventh-round pick out of Western Carolina who caught the Patriots' attention before the draft with some off-the-charts physical testing, made a notable leaping interception in spring practices before being sidelined with an undisclosed injury. While Lewis, Jackson and Crossen are among those who showed some promise, McCourty is a steady veteran who spent most of the spring on the sideline, which currently makes his fit on the team a bit harder to project. It wouldn't be a surprise to me if he's anywhere from a starter to fighting for a roster spot, in part because he doesn't project to a significant role on special teams. The best chances for Wiltz (2017 practice squad), Jones (2016 second-round pick) and Moore (2018 undrafted free agent out of Mississippi) to stick are through special-teams contributions.
Stat of note: In the past three regular seasons, Malcolm Butler played 98.8, 96.7 and 97.8 percent of the defensive snaps, respectively, which highlights the void the Patriots will attempt to fill in 2018.
One thing to watch for in camp: Consistency from the younger players on a day-to-day basis, as that has the best chance of winning over Bill Belichick and Brian Flores (who is handling the defensive coordinator duties). Attrition often has a way of clarifying the picture, because things move much faster than they did in spring practices.