In 2003, the New England Patriots ruined the cornerback position for future NFL generations. Bill Belichick’s “Hit ‘em when they have the ball, and hit ‘em when they don’t” defensive strategy terrorized the NFL for three years, sending running backs and receivers rolling in just about every game. It came to a head in the 2003 AFC Championship, when the Pats defense, namely Ty Law, Rodney Harrison, and Eugene Wilson, pulverized Peyton Manning’s prolific passing attack into nothing more than slush that deterred the Patriots as much as the snow on the field that day. They say Reggie Wayne still hasn’t recovered. That offseason, the NFL announced there would be stricter enforcement of illegal contact, pass interference, and defensive holding penalties, specifically citing the Patriots abuse of the Colts in that game as a reason.
Ok, so ruined might be a strong word, but the NFL putting a magnifying glass to these rules would change the way the cornerback position was played. Pre-2004, a lockdown corner was a guy who could hit a receiver at the line, hand-fight down the field, and then out-physical his man to a throw. Every team was looking for a headhunter that could also cut on a dime. Think Ty Law, Rod Woodson, Ronnie Lott type of guys.
After the enhanced rule enforcement, the ideal skillset became an ability to predict and run routes, have both top-flight lateral and straight-line speed, and a vertical that can compete for a jump ball with a player half a foot taller or more. This in effect makes a true complete corner one of the rarest of commodities, and we went from an NFL where receiver and corner talent was about even, to a league with maybe only 5 or 6 true shutdown corners.
And when that happens, supply and demand kicks in. The price of top-flight corners has skyrocketed in the last decade, they currently have the second highest defensive franchise tag (the average yearly salary of the top 5 players at the position) at $14.2 million. So unless you are willing to shell out big bucks, the only way to get elite corner talent is the draft, where there have been just as many, if not more, busts than booms in the last few years.
So how does a team that wants to build a complete roster and compete make room for elite, affordable cornerback talent? Find the guy everybody else missed. Easy, right? Well it has been for the Patriots. In the past few years, they’ve shown the ability to identify and bring in undrafted cornerbacks at an unprecedented rate. In 2016, there were thirteen undrafted cornerbacks to start more than half of their team’s games (9).
Of those thirteen, five recorded two or more interceptions. Of those five, Malcolm Butler, Cre’Von LeBlanc and Sterling Moore were all given rookie chances by Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots.
Are the Patriots just lucky with the guys that sign after the draft? Probably a little, but nothing at 1 Patriots Place happens by accident. Lets look at some of the guys they have had recent success with. Malcolm Butler was a borderline day 3 draft pick out of Western Alabama in 2014. Without an invite to the combine, Butler’s lone chance to show off to NFL scouts was at his pro day.
Mainly on the NFL radar for his speed, Butler had an off day, running a 4.62 40 yard dash, which would have ranked 5th worst at the combine. After going undrafted, the Patriots brought him in for a workout, where he ran a 4.4, which would have ranked 5th best. The Patriots signed him on the spot. The rest, as they say, is history. While Butler will probably set the record for largest cornerback contract if he hits the open market next off-season, the Patriots have been able to get top-5 talent for less than a million dollars a year at that position, affording them the flexibility to bring in a number of free agents crucial to two Super Bowl runs.
While Malcolm Butler is without a doubt the Patriots most high-level, high profile UDFA corner success story, he is not their only one. Cre’Von LeBlanc was another borderline day 3 prospect who went undrafted due to a slow 40 time, he ran a 4.67 at his pro day, which would have been 5th worst at the combine that season. While the exact time isn’t know, it is reported that he ran in the low 4.4s in his private workout with the Patriots, which would have put him in the top 5 in Indianapolis.
Again, he was signed before he left the facility. While LeBlanc didn’t stick with the Patriots out of camp, he was quickly signed by the Chicago Bears, becoming one of the few bright spots in their Swiss-cheese defense, and is looking at an expanded role in 2017.
So the Patriots are just finding guys who aren’t at their best on at their pro day, right? People have said for years the combine and single day testing shouldn’t be the be-all end-all of player evaluation. While that might have something to do with it, not all of the Patriots UDFA corners to have success fit that mold. Jonathan Jones ran a 4.33, and at the Combine nonetheless.
In fact, no corner ran a better 40 in 2016. Yet Jones, a 4 year starter at Auburn, did not hear his name called on draft weekend. Due to his size (5’9) teams projected him as a slot corner, and were concerned with his lack of experience. He played just 1% of his snaps as the slot corner for the Tigers, mostly lining up outside. However, the Patriots identified SOMETHING in his game, brought him in, and saw him become a special teams standout for them in 2016. He is currently the favorite to win the starting slot corner spot for them this season.
Ok, so if Belichick and his staff are so good at evaluating the bottom of each incoming cornerback class, they must be great at identifying superstar potential among the upper echelon of the college talent pool. You’d think so, but not quite. Since joining the Patriots in 2000, Belichick has drafted 17 corners. Of those, lets look at the 10 that were taken in the fourth round or higher (sorry Antwan Harris), because after that, you’re mainly picking for special teams, or taking chances on very raw prospects.
If you take the 10 that should be expected to pan out, just 4 are still in the league, and only 2 are still on the team. Of those two, one has converted to safety (Devin McCourty), and one was drafted mainly as a kick returner (Cy Jones), struggled to get defensive snaps, and was inactive for 9 games in his rookie campaign in 2016. In the second round alone, Bill has drafted a who’s who of Ras-I Dowling, Darrius Butler, and Terrence Wheatley, all of whom struggled and never saw a second contract with the team.
What does this all mean? Well, some Patriots fans felt uncomfortable not taking a cornerback in this years draft; despite the safe assumption Malcolm Butler is on his way out after this season, with no heir apparent. But that fear may be unnecessary. The Patriots have three UDFA cornerbacks in camp this year, all whom have looked impressive through OTAs and the early stages of training camp.
I’m not saying the Patriots are sitting on the next Malcolm Buter, Chris Harris, or Brent Grimes (all undrafted), but DJ Killings, Will Likely, and Kenny Moore are all players to keep an eye on as the preseason kicks off. And if the Patriots don’t draft a cornerback in 2017, just remember, Belichick’s best draft day for that position isn’t the first, second, or third. He’s a day 4 team builder. Just another way he stays a step ahead of the rest of the NFL.
Written By: Alex Barth (@The_REAL_Alex_B)