Perry: Patriots should call these cornerbacks when tampering begins

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With the NFL's legal tampering period set to begin Monday, it's worthwhile for us to take a look at the types of players the Patriots could be calling. 

After chatting with front-office personnel around the league, let's dive in at corner, which is arguably the team's biggest need, and where the Patriots might be willing to spend a chunk of their available funds.

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Given the amount of cash they spent last offseason, given their salary-cap situation, they're more likely to be in on players who won't be paid near the top of the market. But corner is so thin near the top of the New England depth chart right now that Bill Belichick may be more willing to stretch there compared to other spots.

What will the Patriots be looking for? Just as the case at receiver, guys with size and speed would help.

Jonathan Jones is set to return and is expected to take over the slot corner role. Behind him in that spot sits Myles Bryant, who the team likes in that role. 

Where they need help is on the outside. Jalen Mills manned one boundary corner spot last year and was capable. Now with J.C. Jackson likely headed elsewhere in free agency, they need someone who can fill in. Someone with starting experience, with the ability to play man-to-man, and with the length to match up with big-bodied threats outside the numbers would be the kind of player the Patriots might like to bring aboard.

One free agent who seems like a real fit would be Baltimore's Anthony Averett. He learned Nick Saban's rules in the secondary at Alabama and then was selected by former Bill Belichick pupil Ozzie Newsome to play in Baltimore. At 5-11, 183 pounds Averett doesn't have overwhelming size, but he's taller than Jackson, and he has plenty of athleticism having run a 4.36-second 40 before being drafted in 2018.

The Ravens secondary was decimated by injury last season, but Averett was an every-week starter in their man-heavy scheme. He finished with three picks, eight pass breakups, and a quarterback rating allowed of 79.1. Among 64 corners last season with at least 450 coverage snaps, that rating-allowed figure ranked 16th. The Patriots aren't necessarily married to their man-to-man defense -- they played chunks of last season favoring zone when it made sense given their personnel limitations -- but Averett would allow them to lean into that man-to-man style they've preferred in recent years.

Bradley Roby of the Saints is another player to keep in mind as a Patriots fit when the tampering window opens. Among corners with at least 250 coverage snaps last year, Roby was 14th in man-to-man coverage snap rate, according to Pro Football Focus (39.5 percent); Averett was 16th (39.1). Roby appears to have good enough size (5-11, 194) and athleticism to be disruptive on the outside.

His 14 forced-incompletion percentage (pass breakups, interceptions, tight coverage) in man coverage last season, per PFF, was equal to the number posted by Jalen Ramsey of the Rams on the same number of man targets (21). Roby allowed a rating of 135.1 in man, however, and he turns 30 in May. His age and the volatility he showed last year in coverage may drop his price down into a range that's comfortable for the Patriots.

When discussing free agents who have length and man-to-man experience, Kansas City's Charvarius Ward (6-1, 200) is another who fits. Headed into his 26-year-old season and with three years as a starter under defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, the Patriots could be interested but his price tag figures to be significant. Should his market be weaker than expected, perhaps the Patriots would push to add his frame press-man skill set on the outside.

A more cost-effective option with that kind of length? How about Brandon Facyson (6-2, 197) of the Raiders? He's coming off a season in Vegas where he made nine starts in their zone-heavy coverages, but he's a strong athlete -- Facyson has been a core special-teamer both for the Raiders and previously with the Chargers since entering the league in 2018 -- and he has the length to match up with bigger bodies that the Patriots, as currently constructed, may have problems with.

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Another player who may be viewed as a value option for the Patriots on the outside would be Darius Phillips from Cincinnati. He played in 12 games last season, primarily as a special-teamer, but in 2020 was more of a regular defensively (593 snaps) and performed well. Among 90 corners with at least 500 snaps that season, aligning in a variety of different spots in the Bengals man coverages, Phillips had the 15th-highest overall PFF grade and the 33rd-highest coverage grade. At 5-10, 190 pounds, Phillips won't be mistaken for a big-bodied eraser, but he has starting experience in man-to-man scheme, and he has the kind of kicking-game chops the Patriots would value.

The Patriots would like to address their need at corner prior to the draft. They need someone who can start, someone with the physical skill set to play on the outside, and someone with some man ability would be preferred. There should be a handful available to them. The only question is how far they'll be willing to extend financially after allowing Jackson to get to free agency, leaving them with an obvious need at one of the game's most expensive positions.

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