One of the New England Patriots' most pressing needs this offseason is upgrading a pass defense that was terrible much of last season, and that necessity in the secondary should send the Patriots into the sort of troubled waters they generally avoid in the first round of April's draft.
North Alabama cornerback Janoris Jenkins is one of the most physically gifted players at his position in this year's draft class, but a litany of off-the-field issues, including marijuana use and his dismissal from the University of Florida, have damaged Jenkins' draft stock to the point where Greg Bedard of the Boston Globe tweeted Thursday that he can't see Jenkins being selected in the first round.
I would be shocked if Patriots took Jenkins in the first round, where they usually manage risk. In the second? Sure, possibly— Greg A. Bedard (@GregABedard) April 12, 2012
Bedard isn't alone in his less-than-stellar assessment of Jenkins' chances of being selected in the draft's first round. In fact, Albert Breer of the NFL Network reported Thursday that not only have Jenkins' personal issues damaged his odds of hearing his name called on April 26, but it's also caused some teams to remove Jenkins from their board altogether.
Executives agreed that he is talented and has been honest about his issues, though it continues to trouble them that the drug use, by Jenkins' own admission, wasn't curtailed after he was thrown off Florida's team by coach Will Muschamp.
"He's running with the wrong people," an NFC personnel executive said. "They gave him every chance in the world at Florida, and it didn't work. … And he gets to North Alabama, and he's still smoking because he's got this big-fish, little-pond thing going. I don't see him going in the first round, and a lot of teams have him off their board completely."
However, Jenkins has claimed in interviews with NFL teams that he has cleaned up his act and will not be a problem for his future employer, a position his agent reinforced in a statement in response to Breer's piece.
"Our talks with league GMs and scouts have been overwhelmingly positive," the agent said. "Most of these scouts believe that Janoris is the top cover corner in the draft and have been impressed with the way he has handled himself through the pre-draft process, from the Senior Bowl to the combine to team visits. He's been open and honest about his mistakes and has learned from them. He has demonstrated that he's fully dedicated to fulfilling his dreams of being a professional football player."
Assurances from Jenkins and his agent aside, there are certainly enough red flags surrounding the 5'10", 191-pound cornerback to give teams serious pause about burning a precious first-round pick on Jenkins. However, the Patriots are in a rather unique position this year with a glaring hole in the defensive backfield and a pair of picks toward the back end of the first round, and Jenkins and New England could be of significant benefit to one another.
For all his off-the-field problems, no one is questioning Jenkins' ability to be a difference maker on the gridiron. As Jeff Diamond of Sports Illustrated recently wrote some scouts believe that Jenkins is the most talented player at his position in the 2012 draft class, and his presence would instantly provide the worst pass defense in the AFC in 2011 with a badly needed infusion of talent.
Jenkins has been called potentially the best cover corner available this year by some scouts and analysts. He is quick, athletic, instinctive, smooth and plays with great anticipation. On talent alone, the 5-foot-11, 193-pounder with 4.4 speed carries a mid-first-round grade. He started three years at Florida, earning Freshman All-American honors in 2008 and snagging eight career interceptions as a Gator. In his junior year, he held future high-first-round picks A.J. Green and Julio Jones to a combined eight catches for 61 yards. He is also a top kick returner.
Also, while the Patriots haven't generally been big risk takers in the first round of recent drafts (partially due to their penchant for trading down at every possible opportunity), head coach Bill Belichick does have something of a track record of not only acquiring players with troubled histories but also having success with them.
If Jenkins truly is serious about cleaning up his act, then the New England Patriots, with a corps of veteran leaders and a no-nonsense coach preaching the "Patriots Way," would seem the perfect place for him to keep his head on straight. If that were to occur and Jenkins lived up to his considerable potential, he could easily be the steal of the first round with either the 27th or 31st pick.
If the Patriots are going to use one of those picks on a cornerback then it's likely Jenkins or bust, as Dre Kirkpatrick of Alabama and South Carolina's Stephon Gilmore will probably be off the board, and Jenkins is the only other cornerback prospect with anything resembling first-round-talent.
Many pundits don't think the potential reward is worth the risk with Jenkins, and while one AFC college scout raved to Breer about Jenkins' talent, he also made it clear that he'll roll his eyes at any squad that spends a first-round pick on the enigmatic defensive back.
Physically, he may be the best, It's either him or Claiborne. But if someone takes him in the first round, I'm telling you right now, I'm gonna think it's a dumb move. … I wouldn't touch him in the first round under any circumstance.
However, today's pass-happy NFL has amplified the value of cover cornerbacks exponentially. Given the Patriots' unique combination of two first-round picks, a need to upgrade the defensive backfield and a landing spot that Jenkins should find ideal rolling the dice on the mercurial youngster is worth the risk for the Patriots, and it's a gamble that could pay off big for New England down the road.