FOXBORO — With the cornerback position being the perceived weakest link on the Patriots defense, specifically the backs who patrol the boundary, here’s three words no one expected to hear following camp practice:
Nobody got open!
This wasn’t a mirage or some fairy tale dreamt up by the media. The receivers and tight ends were basically erased by the secondary during Saturday’s training camp session. And the corners did much of the yeoman work, all while wearing padded mitts on their hands to boot.
During the 11-on-11 periods in particular, it wasn’t close. The receivers couldn’t gain any separation, leaving quarterbacks Mac Jones and Bailey Zappe holding the ball, scrambling around, buying time for someone, anyone, to gain a bit of daylight.
It didn’t happen.
Jones completed just 2-of-6 passes with a sack and interception in the final red zone period. No wonder he wasn’t a happy camper leaving the field.
The question is whether this says more about the receiver room, or the cornerback room. The answer is probably a little of both, but since we’ve been pumping the receivers tires all week, it’s time to give the cornerbacks their due.
They’ve competed well for the most part during the non-padded practices. It’ll be interesting to see if that trend continues when the pads come on Monday.
On Saturday, the corners and coverage safeties basically did a good job taking away the quarterback’s first option by reading and anticipating plays incredibly well. Granted, everyone watching from the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium knew the offense was going to throw the football, but that shouldn’t take away from the effort.
With pass rushers zipping by would-be blockers, combined with all the tight coverage provided by the secondary, Jones was forced to run around, dodging and darting defenders like a poor man’s Kyler Murray.
On the afternoon’s final play, rookie Marcus Jones made a terrific play breaking up a pass intended for Jakobi Meyers.
“Marcus, just a quick, savvy, smart player, man. He made a good play that last play,” receiver Kendrick Bourne said following practice. “I could’ve done better actually, trying to mess up his angle on Jakobi, but just a smart, savvy player.”
On the day as a whole, the group registered a whopping seven passes defensed and an eighth that turned into a pick-six by Kyle Dugger. And it wasn’t just a one-man band.
Jalen Mills, Malcolm Butler, Terrance Mitchell, Justin Bethel, Joejuan Williams, Jack Jones, and Marcus Jones all had pass breakups, as the two rookies already look like keepers.
On Friday, when asked how he would describe the cornerback room, Marcus Jones replied without hesitation: “Ready to dominate.”
For one camp day at least, that was the biggest storyline.
Perhaps the competition is bringing out the best in everyone, and that even includes Williams, who made a nice play slapping away a deep corner throw intended for tight end Devin Asiasi.
It’s widely assumed Mills, a returning starter, will have one of the boundary spots, while the second one is up for grabs between Mitchell, Butler, and Jack Jones.
Mitchell has been getting the starters reps with Mills, and hasn’t looked out of place.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick seems to be a fan of the veteran corner.
“Mitch has done a nice job for us, yet another very experienced player who has been in a couple of different defensive systems,” Belichick said Thursday. “Some of the things we’re asking him to do are a little bit different, but he’s adapted well. He’s smart, he’s experienced, he’s a good instinctive player and he’s had some good production through the opportunities while we’ve been here, and understanding what those are and aren’t.
“We’ll see how that goes when we get the padded training camp practice going.”
He actually had the toughest day of the lot. Along with his pass deflection, he surrendered three catches, the most of anyone. He’s clearly behind Mills and Mitchell, but there’s still time. At the very least, Butler, now 32 and returning to the game after spending last year in retirement, seems to have done a good job mentoring the two Jones boys.
Earlier in the week, he talked about his role as one of the veterans in the cornerback room, saying: “I lead by example. I don’t talk as much. I’m going to lead by making plays.”
Jack Jones, however, said Butler has had plenty to say trying to help him out.
“I sit next to him in meetings,” said Jones, the Patriots’ 2022 fourth-round pick. “I ask him a lot of questions … he’s helped me a lot.”
Looking at the big picture, the Patriots are going to need more from Butler. We’ll see if he’s able to contribute more down the road.
Speaking with Patriots legend and Hall of Famer Ty Law recently, he thinks Butler will ultimately step up and help the secondary.
“Of course, you can’t expect him to make up for J.C. Jackson, a young guy in his prime and full of swagger and confidence,” said Law. “But he’s coming back to the place where he’s had his most success. He made his name there, so there could be a level of comfort coming back … sometimes as professional athletes, you have a comfort zone. And that’s where you might get the best performance out of him. He knows the system, and he was a good player for the Patriots.”
Jack Jones, who has been playing opposite Butler on the second unit, has made his presence felt, first during minicamp, and now in the opening days of training camp. The Patriots would really get a boost if both Jack and Marcus can contribute right away.
“Jack’s twitchy. Very twitchy, very reactive, good at reacting and he made plays today, too,” said Bourne. “They’re just making plays and growing each and every day, so it’s exciting to see their potential, man, and know we got some good ones.”
Thus far, the cornerback play on the whole has been a pleasant surprise. And starting Monday, they’ll actually get to press some receivers at the line when the pads come on.
Needless to say, they’re hoping to give Mac Jones more days like this.