New England Patriots: 2014 NFL Draft Preview – Cornerback

 

Follow Alex @isportspeters on twitter and reach him at isportspeters@gmail.com

 

 

Alright, here we go.

Yesterday, I outlined what this exercise would entail, and now we come to the first position of interest: cornerbacks.

As a reminder, the Patriots have their first round (29), second round, third round, fourth round, Philly’s sixth round, their own sixth round, and their own seventh round picks.

State of the Position: Like I said last week, the need to draft a cornerback hinges entirely on whether or not the Patriots will retain Aqib Talib, and for how long. That second point is important: Talib had an injury-plagued season (and left his second straight AFC Title game early) and may be open to returning for another 1-year prove-it deal. The chances of this are slim, but stranger things have happened. When Talib is on the field, he’s the Patriots’ sole shutdown corner, and uses his length and physicality to disrupt bigger receivers (Demaryius Thomas, AJ Green, Jimmy Graham).

imagesShould Talib sign elsewhere on a long-term deal, that would leave Kyle Arrington, Alfonzo Dennard, and Logan Ryan as the starting trio of cornerbacks. All three are solid corners, but, as we saw against Denver, that’s not a group that can stop the top offenses in the league. Dennard still looked strong in coverage, and plays fiery and tough, despite his small stature. It was his lack of height that really showed against Thomas, who plain out-jumped Dennard on many of his catches. Kyle Arrington has continued to be very strong playing in the slot, and is a good run defender, but has struggled in man coverage in the open field. Logan Ryan had a standout rookie season, but looked lost at times against Denver, and needs one more year of seasoning before he can be thrust into the No. 1 position. The Patriots also have Justin Green as a backup, who has hopped back and forth from the practice squad, and is solid organizational depth.

 

What The Patriots Are Looking For: Probably someone more in the mold of Talib than Dennard in terms of build. Taller, longer corners with strong footwork. Also, and perhaps most importantly, comfortable in a variety of defensive schemes, especially both man and zone coverage. The Patriots will always take instincts over physicality, and are probably a lot less likely to take a player with injury concerns (uh…Ras-I Dowling).

 

THE TALENT:

 

In Case He Slips: Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State

Depending on whom you ask, Justin Gilbert is either the best or second-best corner in the 2014 NFL Draft Class (CBSSports has him second to Darqueze Dennard out of Michigan State). At 6’0, 200 lbs, he’s a big, physical dude, who plays well in bump-and-run as well as off-man coverage. Gilbert is a walking big play: he has six interceptions in 2013, with seven broken passes, and flourished as a kick returner, returning one for a 100-yard touchdown against Kansas. He has great speed and hands, and with some focus on his discipline in coverage, is a sure-fire above-average starter in the NFL. There are a bunch of teams (Detroit and Tennessee spring to mind) that have a need at corner, but there’s always a chance he slips. If so, the Patriots should snatch him up.

 

1st Round/2nd Round: Jason Verrett, TCU

downloadOutside of Darqueze Dennard, Jason Verrett may have the best cover skills in this draft class. He makes smooth turns with his hips and has tremendous footwork. What pops on his game tape are his instincts, the dude is a ballhawk. He has great timing, knows when to bait throws, and can surge into a passing lane and break it up. Since 2012, despite not being targeted often, Verrett had a nation-best 38 passes defended (8 interceptions, 30 broken up). The problem? Verrett isn’t the biggest player, at 5’10, 176. As a point of reference, Alfonzo Dennard is 5’10, 200. Verrett definitely doesn’t play small, and loves to throw his body around in run defense, but he may get picked on once he reaches the NFL. Because teams may be scared by his height, Verrett looks like he could slip into the 2nd and maybe even the 3rd round. While he doesn’t have the length the Patriots would be looking for, he certainly has the defensive IQ and skills to be a starter in this secondary.

 

2nd Round/3rd Round: Pierre Desir, Lindenwood

After hours of research, I’ve learned that Lindenwood University is a Division II school outside of St. Louis.

download (1)Now that we’ve got that out of the way, Desir has been skyrocketing up draft boards after his standout performances in the East-West Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl. At 6’1, 195, Desir is big enough to cover the larger receivers in the NFL game, but he also has strong athleticism and speed for his considerable size. He is a bit raw in coverage, but did total 25 interceptions in his college career. The obvious concern is that he will struggle immensely against top-tier talent after playing against DII schools for his entire career, but if the right team wanted to take a risk on a high-upside player, Desir might be just the guy.

 

3rd Round/4th Round: Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Nebraska

This may be a conservative projection for Jean-Baptiste, as teams are undoubtedly entranced by his 6’3, 215 lb frame. The former wide receiver is still a bit underdeveloped in his coverage skills, and doesn’t have elite footwork by any means, but he does have the raw athleticism and size to make game-changing plays. The Cornhusker finished with 4 INT and 11 PD in his 2013 campaign, and was a second-team All-Big Ten squad member. If picked, Jean-Baptiste would probably be more of a developmental project, and definitely needs to work on his physicality, but could eventually become a good player.

 

5th Round/6th Round: Deion Belue, Alabama

download (2)First off, tremendous name, I’d buy a “Belue” Pats jersey on Day 1. But overall, he’s a very solid player. Despite playing with a toe injury throughout the season, Belue only missed two games, and was Alabama’s No. 1 cover corner. While not the biggest corner (5’11, 183), he plays strong, heady coverage with good footwork and the willingness to go defend the run. He’s a high character player, winning Alabama’s Pat Trammel Award (given to the player who personifies the All-American youth with integrity, character, academics and leadership). The Alabama connection obviously helps, and you can bet Bill Belichick will listen to what Nick Saban has to say about Belue. While not necessarily having one standout skill, Belue is a solid all-around player who could be found in the later rounds.

 

 

Be sure to check my Twitter (@isportspeters) for more of this draft preview, as well as more Red Sox/Patriots/Celtics articles. As always, if there are any players who you think should be included here, drop me a line on Twitter or at isportspeters@gmail.com.