With the 2018 NFL draft on tap next week, PFW will offer a capsule look at each position in the coming days. Today we look at cornerbacks.
Patriots need: In an offseason that has featured more off-field discussion than any in recent Patriots memory, no one received more attention than Malcolm Butler. Ironically, despite the constant speculation about his lack of playing time in the Super Bowl and subsequent free agent departure, most don't feel cornerback is a major need for the team entering the draft. While there are other spots that deserve more urgency - left tackle, pass rusher - the situation in the secondary is far from settled. Jason McCourty was acquired and will likely take Butler's spot opposite Stephon Gilmore, and Eric Rowe will still be in the mix, but that group won't remind anyone of the days when Darrelle Revis led a stingy secondary back in 2014. The Patriots could use some young talent on the back end, and with Rowe and McCourty both entering the final year of their current contracts, it would make sense to target one this weekend.
High-end options: The cornerback crop is a deep one but not necessarily filled with an abundance of blue-chippers. Most experts have three or four corners in the mix as first-round picks, and most feel Ohio State's Denzel Wardtops the list. Ward plays with aggressiveness and is a willing tackler. He also comes from a program that has turned out some quality defensive backs in recent seasons, including 2017 first-round picks Marshon Lattimore and Malik Hooker. Iowa's Josh Jackson, Louisville's Jaire Alexander and Central Florida's Mike Hughes also could be gone in Round 1. Alexander may be the best of the class with his strong play in run support coupled with his competitive nature and tight coverage skills. Hughes has exceptional talent but comes with some off-field concerns stemming from an alleged sexual assault accusation. Hughes is a dynamic return man on both punts and kicks.
Mid-round value: There will still be plenty of talent to choose from at cornerback outside of the first-round. Auburn's Carlton Davis, Colorado's Isaiah Oliver, LSU's Donte Jackson, Alabama's Anthony Averett and North Carolina's M.J. Stewart are among those expected to head their names called on Day 2. Jackson might be the most physically gifted of that group with great speed and the ability to play on special teams. Oliver has been tied to the Patriots is some draft projections and plays with some physicality while Averetthas the ability to play in the slot and also likes to play with plenty of contact - too much so at times. Florida's Duke Dawsonalso is worth keeping an eye on.
Prediction: Hughesmight turn out to be the prize of this class but the off-field issues will be enough to scare off plenty of teams, particularly ones who have been outspoken against domestic violence/sexual abuse like the Patriots. Alexander would be the choice should New England opt for a corner earlier rather than later. He would make a lot of sense in the first round should the Patriots decide to stay put. Oliver's presence alongside the Patriots also can't be ignored, and if Bill Belichick decides to wait a bit before grabbing a corner it could be him.