New England Patriots: Core strength is elite cornerback trio

New England is looking to boast the top cornerback trio in the league for the second year in a row. Here's why we expect the position group to step up and lead the team to the promise land, again.

New England enters the season with one of the deepest stables of cornerbacks in the league. Last year it resulted in a Super Bowl. Can this group propel them another title?

While there were many key plays in New England’s win over the Rams, two stand out to us as the biggest. The first being is Stephon Gilmore‘s de-facto game-clinching interception late in the fourth quarter.

The second? It is only our opinion, but it’s a pass breakup. On the surface, it sounds mundane. However, as innocuous as it may seem, it prevented an entire momentum shift.

Watch as Jason McCourty travels at warp speed to make a play on the ball in a situation where he had no business being able to do so. Yes, as the video correctly points out, not only is the pass extremely late, but the ball is a complete duck. Still, McCourty shouldn’t have been able to cover so much ground so quickly, and when he arrived, he didn’t even make a play on the ball. He went straight for Brandin Cooks‘ arms to force the incompletion, which is a feat of strength that is debatably more difficult than making contact directly with the ball.

Frank Costanza would be proud.

If Jared Goff hits that pass, Los Angeles goes up 7-3, and all of a sudden the incompetent looking Patriots offense is playing catch up against the league’s second-best offense.

In 2018, this outstanding corner play ending up tipping the Super Bowl to New England. Will the Patriots be able to ride this group during their quest to repeat?

Latest data

Long-held has been the belief that pass rushing and pass rushers make a larger impact than coverage play and cornerbacks. While the point of this article is not to join in the debate as to which side is more important, we at Pro Football Network are here to inform you to the best of our abilities.

ProFootballFocus released a study that examined what impacted the game more, pass rush or coverage. The top-line conclusion: coverage is more important.

In isolation, the correlation between team-level coverage grades and EPA allowed per pass play during that season is roughly -0.69 (r-squared of 0.48). EPA correlates with pass rush at a rate of roughly -0.23 (r-squared of 0.05). The success rate is a bit less correlated with these grades (correlations of -0.62 and -0.21, respectively), but are directionally consistent with the above dynamic – PFF grades in coverage explain more about what happens in the passing game in a given season than pass-rush grades do.

As I said on Kevin Cole’s podcast a few weeks back: during the PFF era, teams with elite coverage (67th percentile or better) and a poor pass rush (33rd percentile or worse) win, on average, about a game and a half more than teams with the reverse construction.

The study does make clear that both are important and teams should invest significant resources into each. It also discovered that on a year to year basis, pass rushing is a more stable metric at both the team and player level.

PFF coverage grades both explain and predict defensive success better than pass rush, but they come at the expense of year-to-year stability at both the player and team level. Next year’s Aaron Donald is likely to be Aaron Donald, but if a team is going to have a ton of success as a result of strong play by their defense, they will likely need to have next year’s Stephon Gilmore on their team (who is probably not going to be Stephon Gilmore himself).

What a perfect example. While New England heads into 2019 with the best cornerback in football from 2018, it is unlikely Gilmore repeats as the best CB in football this year. Coverage play is less stable over time in comparison to pass rushing. While this doesn’t bode well for the Patriots porous pass rush, we need to figure out what to reasonably expect from New England’s corners in 2019.

New England and their elite trio

Last week, we looked into why New England has the best safety trio in the NFL. Coincidentally enough, the Patriots have a fair claim for the best  CB trio as well. We discussed McCourty’s pass breakup in the Super Bowl. Forcing incomplete passes is kind of New England cornerbacks’ thing.

As you can see, the Patriots have two cornerbacks that finished in the top five in 2018 in forced incompletion rate, as J.C. Jackson joins Gilmore on the leaderboard.

We can at least establish that New England sported the top CB duo in the league last year. Gilmore was PFF’s top-rated corner in 2018. At 90.9, he was the only corner to post a grade higher than 90 last season. Joining him in the top six was McCourty, making the Patriots the only team to feature two cornerbacks in the top six.

As for Jackson, the undrafted free agent displayed exponential growth as the season wore on. He showed high-level ball skills and blanket coverage ability during the second half of 2018.

Let’s look at what these three will bring to the table in 2019, as well as if they will be receiving additional support.

Stephon Gilmore

As stated above, Gilmore finished last season as PFF’s highest-graded cornerback. It’s a distinction he earned. In 2018, during the regular season, Gilmore allowed 42 receptions on 90 targets for a completion percentage in his coverage of 44%. He yielded just 466 yards along with five touchdowns while adding 18 pass breakups and two interceptions.

Gilmore allowed just 0.56 yards per coverage snap last year, which tied him for the fifth-best mark in the league among cornerbacks that played at least 347 coverage snaps. Furthermore, Gilmore’s 15.3 coverage snaps per reception was the 10th best mark among cornerbacks given the same coverage snaps minimum.

The passer rating on all throws into his coverage this season was 71.8. Put another way; quarterbacks essentially turned into a mix of Blaine Gabbert and Josh Johnson when throwing Gilmore’s way.

Some of Gilmore’s best performances this season were against elite receivers. He held DeAndre Hopkins to 50 yards on 6 targets, Allen Robinson to 0 yards on 4 targets, Davante Adams to 15 yards on 4 targets, and Antonio Brown to 8 yards on 4 targets.

The concern here is the second result of the PFF study. While the data shows coverage to have a higher correlation with winning, year over year, it is less stable. To reiterate the earlier quote, “..if a team is going to have a ton of success as a result of strong play by their defense, they will likely need to have next year’s Stephon Gilmore on their team (who is probably not going to be Stephon Gilmore himself).”

Looking backward to look forward on Gilmore gives us both pros and cons. 2018 was easily his highest-graded season by PFF. In fact, he only has one other season grading in the 80’s, while posting two in the 70’s and three in the 60’s. The optimistic interpretation, however, is that his 83 and 90.9 grades came as a Patriot. While they’re out of line with his previous five seasons, it’s perfectly rationale that New England is simply deploying him in a position that caters to his strengths and he is therefore in a better position to succeed.

While the takeaway is that Gilmore is unlikely to repeat as the best CB in football in 2019, the Patriots should be feeling confident they have a top ten CB.

Jason McCourty

Despite all the moaning about allowing Malcolm Butler to walk in the offseason, McCourty was an improvement on the 2017 version of Butler. McCourty allowed 53 receptions on 90 targets for 734 yards and four touchdowns while breaking up nine passes and adding one interception. The passer rating allowed in his coverage was 95.1 on the year. Functionally speaking, passers turned into Mitch Trubisky when targeting McCourty.

McCourty also fit New England’s man scheme perfectly. He moved all over the field as he would follow his assignment around the formation. McCourty accumulated 751 snaps this season and spent 265 snaps in the slot, 275 snaps at left corner, and 211 snaps at right corner. Talk about equal opportunity deployment.

The unheralded Super Bowl standout was also the Patriots top defensive back from that game, at least as far as PFF’s grading system is concerned. He not only posted the top overall grade among defensive backs for the game, but he posted the highest coverage grade on the team. He allowed two completions on four targets, with those two completions accumulating a whopping nine yards.

J.C. Jackson

Jackson finished the year allowing 262 yards and 22 receptions on 42 targets. He recorded 3 interceptions and added 3 pass breakups. The passer rating allowed in his coverage was 42.0. To put things into perspective, you get a passer rating of 39.6 if you spike the ball in the dirt. Jackson has flashed exceptional ball skills in his short career.

In this clip, it looks more as if Jackson is the one running that route with Wilson in the disadvantageous position of being the defender. Jackson then gets his head around and makes a play on the ball for the pick.

Here’s another highlight.

In the second clip of the above thread, Jackson again perfectly plays the receiver, hanging with JuJu Smith-Schuster all the way down the field. Jackson is right there with a contest at the catch point and continues to fight and rip the ball out on an enormous 3rd down.

If Jackson does proceed on a linear progression, New England may sport the best CB trio in all of football in 2019.

Joejuan Williams

New England paid quite the premium to move up in the second round in order to acquire Joejuan Williams. The Patriots sent the 56th and 101st picks to the Rams in order to get up to #45 to select Williams. In the process, the Patriots forfeited 3.8 points worth of draft capital according to the Chase Stuart draft chart. For context, the 126th pick is worth 3.8 points. This is an atypical move for a Belichick regime.

This selection could be in anticipation of having to replace McCourty after 2019, or perhaps even Patrick Chung. Williams is a massive press-man cornerback (the Patriots preferred coverage scheme) but lacks the long speed to stick with outside receivers down the sidelines. His profile does, however, indicate he can be used as a matchup weapon against tight ends.

Williams had one good season of quality coverage play while at Vanderbilt, and his performance varied on a week to week basis. It is hard to project how any rookie will fare, but given how crowded the cornerback group is and Williams’ prior inconsistencies, there isn’t any way to conclude what to reasonably expect from Williams in 2019.

Duke Dawson

The 2018 second-round pick missed his entire rookie season due to injury. Duke Dawson is a complete wildcard that could potentially bring New England’s secondary to an unrivaled level. Many forget now, but Dawson was the top slot cornerback in the 2018 draft.

[Dawson] allowed a passer rating of only 41.0 when lined up in the slot last year, eighth-best in the nation, after allowing a rating of only 64.6 (38th) in 2016. Given the value of slot defenders in today’s NFL, Dawson fills an important need for the Patriots’ defense.

Dawson would give New England’s defense four highly skilled coverage cornerbacks, with two (along with McCourty) that can flourish in the slot.

In sum

The Patriots are loaded at the top of their CB depth chart. Gilmore, McCourty, and Jackson have the potential to be the best trio in the league. If Williams or Dawson pop, or better yet both, it will be difficult to call any other group of cornerbacks superior to those residing in Foxborough.

Given all the question marks the Patriots have on offense, New England will once again need this position group to step up and lead them to the promised land if we are to see the first repeat champions since 2004.

Jonathan Rosenberg is a writer for PFN covering the AFC East. You can find him @frosted_takes on Twitter.

Listen to the PFN Inside Access Podcast!

Listen to the PFN Inside Access Podcast! Click the embedded player below to listen, or you can find the PFN Fantasy Podcast on iTunes, Spotify, and all major podcast platforms.  Be sure to subscribe and leave us a five-star review!

Related Articles