New England Patriots: Who fills in at corner in Gilmore’s absence?

The New England Patriots moved top cornerback Stephon Gilmore to the physically unable to perform list. Although Gilmore is returning from his quadriceps surgery, he’s also been unhappy with his contract situation. He has one year remaining on his current deal worth $7.7 million and set to hit unrestricted free agency next summer. 

With Gilmore being on the PUP list, he’ll have to miss the first six games of the season. At that point for Gilmore, there would be 11 games left, making his salary more reasonable to play for. As NESN’s Evan Lazar noted: “in theory, fewer games mean more money per game.” Perhaps starting the season on the PUP list was a mutual agreement between Gilmore and the Pats. 

Nevertheless, the New England Patriots need to replace Gilmore’s role in the secondary for a third of the season. But with who? JC Jackson is already holding his own playing parallel to Gilmore on the other side of the field. Jackson’s been a great No. 2 for the Pats, but can he be a No. 1 corner in the NFL?

Jackson finished last season as a top cornerback in the league. He tallied 34 tackles, nine interceptions (second in the NFL), and three fumble recoveries last season. Jackson was ranked among his peers as being a top player in the league. By doing so, Jackson landed at No. 49 on the NFL’s Top 100 list for 2021. So yes, it’s fair to say that Jackson can hold his own as a No. 1 cornerback. 

Now the question becomes, who is going to be the No. 2 behind Jackson? 

Jalen Mills

Mills is probably going to be the top option to fill in the gap while Gilmore is gone. He has a four-year resume of playing the position in Philadelphia, where he struggled along the outside. He’s better as an inside/slot or even a nickel cornerback in New England.

During the preseason game against Washington, Mills struggled with man coverage. More specifically, Terry McLaurin, a top route runner in the league. Even as a No. 2 corner, Mills is going to have to cover top receiver talent. It’s hard to tell if he’ll be able to hold his own against top talent on the outside. 

However, Mills’  presence in Philly allowed him to transition into playing safety last season. There, he had the best season of his career, making 74 total tackles. Mills has the speed and skills that are better suited to play more inside and in the box than outside. 

Joejuan Williams

Williams could be a viable outside corner option if the Patriots are going to need it. He’s the tallest corner they have and can defend the bigger receivers and tight ends. However, since joining the Patriots as their 45th overall draft selection in 2019, Williams has struggled to find the field. 

During the offseason, Williams said he was willing to do whatever the team needs of him. Even if that meant a possible position change. Dating back to last season, Williams was working out the safety position to see if there was a better fit. Not to say it wasn’t, however, Kyle Dugger has been a perfect replacement for Patrick Chung.

In the second game of the preseason, Williams was responsible for covering DeVonta Smith for 24 plays along the outside. Which turned out to be a tough matchup for Williams. He was able to defend well against the long vertical routes. However, it was the routes that broke in where Williams got turned around on.

Williams has only played in 24 games throughout his first two seasons and combined for 16 tackles in his career. It’s worth noting that Williams played the second-most snaps on the team throughout the preseason with 128. The Patriots were able to get a good evaluation of Williams by the end of the preseason. 

After Williams’ preseason, it’s fair to say that he’s best utilized to cover the deep vertical routes along the outside. 

Shaun Wade

Wade is a rookie who was drafted in the fifth-round of this year’s NFL Draft. Unfortunately the Ravens couldn’t find a role for him. He was an All-American at Ohio State and had a great Pro Day prior to the draft. Fortunately for the Patriots, they were able to trade for Wade to add to the cornerback position. 

After the trade, Wade only had one practice with the Patriots before playing in a preseason game with them. At best, he played well all the way to the end of the game. Wade did allow a touchdown by leaving too much space between him and the receiver in the end zone. 

Wade had great speed for a cornerback. Wade’s skills can best be used covering the deep routes against other team’s speedy receivers. Wade also earned some positive recognition from head coach Bill Belichick along his short journey in New England. 

“Obviously, he’s got a long way to go to catch up. But he’s a smart kid, he works at it and I think he’ll be able to pick things up. It’ll just take a little bit of time, but he seems to pick things up pretty quickly.” – Bill Belichick, via Zack Cox of NESN

Wade still needs to sharpen his skills to the NFL level. He’ll find himself on the field in more ways than others, but not as a No. 2 corner.

For the most part, the New England Patriots will ride with Mills in Gilmore’s absence. One thing is certain: the Patriots are going to need Gilmore ASAP. 

-Justin Trombino (@Trombino20)

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