If you’re a gambling man (or woman), it’s a safe bet that the Patriots will draft a defensive back in the first two rounds. Hell, they’ve done it in four straight drafts.
Unfortunately, the results have been a mixed bag.
2008: Patriots select Colorado cornerback Terrence Wheatley with the penultimate pick of the second round. He was rated as a fifth- or sixth-round pick by NFL Draft Scout, but the Pats felt he had the quickness and speed to become a shutdown corner. Instead, he did nothing to disprove the theory that he was injury prone and he’s already on his fourth team.
2009: After trading back, the team selected Oregon safety Patrick Chung with the 34th overall pick. His best traits were his experience (51 starts) and physicality. However, he’s been banged up during his three-year career and hasn’t completely evolved into becoming the next Rodney Harrison. 2012 could be a make or break year for the young, energetic leader.
That same year, the Patriots took Connecticut cornerback Darius Butler with the 41st pick. Some scouts and analysts thought he could have been the top corner in the draft due to his supreme athleticism. Boy were they wrong. Butler got toasted in coverage and his confidence declined. He was cut after just two seasons.
2010: Everyone thought the Pats needed a corner, but most people didn’t have Rutgers corner Devin McCourty on their radar. New England traded back and passed on guys like Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas to take the four-down player who turned in one of the best rookie seasons by a corner of all time. Unfortunately, McCourty looked slower and was terribly inconsistent in 2011. They need him to rebound to 2010 form if this secondary has any shot at redeeming itself.
2011: Another injury-prone corner with a second-round pick? I’ll take it! Instead of trading the 33rd pick, Belichick stayed put and took Virginia corner Ras-I Dowling. He was once pegged as a top-25 selection but fell because of an injury-marred senior season. After an excellent Pro Day workout, he moved back up the board, but ultimately could be found on the sidelines after lasting only two games. Dowling does have the upside to be a good starter, but it’s difficult to put much faith in him considering his checkered medical history.
And now we’re in 2012. Cornerback is still a need, and the safety position could still use some depth even after the signing of Steve Gregory. While the draft is deep at corner, it’s glaringly weak at safety. Let’s take a look at five prospects who could become future Patriots.
1. Janoris Jenkins, CB, North Alabama: If you’re scratching your head when you the top target is from North Alabama, fear not my friends, there’s more to this story than meets the eye. Jenkins previously starred at the University of Florida for three seasons before getting the boot from Will Muschamp after his second drug-related arrest in three months. He went on to have a good season at North Alabama and had an impressive combine performance. The biggest questions with Jenkins are not about his football ability, but about his character. He has been arrested for drug possession, fighting and resisting arrest and also revealed he has several young children. If his head is on right and he’s in a structured environment, I see Jenkins as a more athletic Asante Samuel.
2. Mark Barron, S, Alabama: To play for Nick Saban, you have to be tough, intelligent and talented. Barron fits all three of these criteria. The draft’s top safety came to Alabama as a weak-side linebacker, but starred as the leader of its secondary. He has prototypical size (6-foot-1, 213 pounds) with mid 4.5 speed. His best season came in 2009 when he recorded 76 tackles, seven interceptions and 18 passes defended. Coincidentally, the Crimson Tide won the national championship. Although his numbers dropped the past two seasons, he’s still a big-time talent who has the size, speed and physicality to match up with the new era of tight ends.
3. Stephon Gilmore, CB, South Carolina: Over the past few years, Belichick has seemed to place an importance on bigger corners. At 6-foot-1, 190 pounds Gilmore fits that bill. The 2010 third-team All-American has excelled in zone schemes throughout his career which bodes well for his chances to become a Patriot considering McCourty’s best work comes in zone coverage. Although he was inconsistent in his career, Gilmore has the athleticism to excel one he gets some good coaching. He could be a possibility in the late first round.
4. Jayron Hosley, CB, Virginia Tech: The 5-foot-10, 178-pounder makes up for his lack of size with something defensive coaches covet: ball skills. As a true sophomore, Hosley led the nation with nine interceptions and 17 passes defended. While he only snagged three picks as a junior, he increased his tackle total from 39 to 59 and still broke up 15 passes. Hosley fits the traditional mold of the Patriots smaller, quicker corner, so it will be interesting to see if he’s on their radar this year.
5. Jamell Flemming, CB, Oklahoma: Only a two-year starter, Flemming burst onto the scene in 2010 when he picked off five passes and recorded 71 tackles, including an impressive 8.5 for loss. Those numbers took a dip in 2011, but he’s still among the draft’s top defensive backs available. At 5-foot-11, 206 pounds, Flemming ran a 4.53 and put up 23 reps on the bench. However, his 3.97 short shuttle and 6.71 three-cone times were stellar. He could be a target with the 48th pick.