The New England Patriots are still experimenting a lot with their secondary as they enter the padded portion of training camp. It’s common for New England to open competition in all positions, but the cornerback is one place the Patriots seem utterly uncertain.
In the team’s first padded practice on Monday, they deployed Jalen Mills, Joejuan Williams, Terrance Mitchell, Jack Jones and Malcolm Butler on the outside with the best defensive unit. In the slot, New England used Marcus Jones, Jonathan Jones and Myles Bryant. That spot will be a hotly contested position, which Jonathan Jones held before suffering a season-ending ankle injury in 2021.
The first practice provided some clues as to how these positional battles will play out. So let’s quickly go around the group of positions to note where each player seems to be at the start of the evaluation.
Jalen Mills: He’s on his own insofar as he seems secure in his gig as one of the best cornerbacks. This is not a done deal. But New England gave him the most shots with the top unit and he played well in those opportunities.
Terrence Mitchell: He had practiced with the top unit returning to OTAs, but on Monday the Patriots filtered out the other options as practice dragged on. Mitchell was impressive with his silence on the stat sheet. A good cornerback does not show up, nor does his receiver. He wasn’t a tight cornerback, but he was as consistent as any corner in the group.
Malcolm Butler: He was Mitchell’s foil. Butler was probably as inconsistent as any corner of the group – but the veteran provided some big plays. Monday’s practice was the perfect example, with Butler burning deep 11-on-11 and 1-on-1 in the matchup against DeVante Parker. Butler then bounced back with two pass breakups (including a near-interception) in coverage over Parker and Tyquan Thornton. Maybe Butler lost a step. Then again, maybe he’s just rusting off. We will see.
Jack Jones: He had his ups and downs in the OTAs, but spent a lot of time following Nelson Agholor, which is a solid mission for a rookie cornerback. At camp, Jones had his ups and downs alike. It will be interesting to see if, over time, Jones can become consistent enough to compete for a spot in the starting unit.
Marcus Jones: He was the first man to take a shot in the slot for the padded 11v11 session. But you can take that “first team” designation with a grain of salt, because he was on the court with Joejuan Williams, who may not be part of the team. Marcus Jones, a 2022 third-round pick, will have to be special to steal shots from Jonathan Jones.
Shaun Wade: With Marcus Jones, Jonathan Jones and Myles Bryant struggling with injuries this offseason, Wade has taken most of the shots in the OTA, minicamp and early practice days slot.
Jonathan Jones: If he is healthy, he will start in the slot. But considering he just underwent season-ending surgery at 28, there’s a chance he’ll come back slower and less nimble.
Myles Bryant: For now, he’s outside the roster bubble, just like Williams. New England would not have drafted the two Joneses had they believed in Bryant and Williams.
Before training camp, I predicted that the Patriots wouldn’t choose starters at cornerback, but that they would do a major rotation to start the season. This possibility is still entirely in play.