The casual football fan might not recognize NFL cornerback Justin Coleman on the street.
The New England Patriots’ media guide lists him at 5-foot-11, 190 pounds. If his height is accurate, it’s not an unusually small stature for an average NFL defensive back. But standing next to the average professional athlete, Coleman looks more like Bugs Bunny standing next to the one of the Gas-House Gorillas.
There is one fool-proof way to instantly recognize Coleman as a professional athlete: the hundreds of studs (exactly 283) encrusted in his Super Bowl ring. Coleman posed with it for a couple hours at a charity event in his hometown of Brunswick last week.
In Coleman’s second season as an NFL player, he’s already played for a Super Bowl championship team. In 2015, Coleman was cut by the Minnesota Vikings shortly after signing as an undrafted free agent. Coleman wasn’t left in limbo for long. The Patriots signed Coleman before the end of preseason camp, and fulfilled his goal of playing in the NFL.
“I knew they were going to be successful at some point,” Coleman said. “I knew they would be Super Bowl contenders every year, and I’m excited to be a part of that.”
Coleman has logged time in 20 games over the past two seasons as depth at the cornerback position. He started 25 consecutive games at cornerback in his last two seasons at Tennessee. When Coleman signed with New England, the franchise’s past success led Coleman to believe he’d be competing for a Super Bowl year-after-year. So far, he’s right. The Patriots suffered a two-point loss to the Super Bowl 50 champion Denver Broncos in the 2016 AFC championship game, then surmounted a 25-point halftime deficit in Super Bowl 51 against Coleman’s childhood favorite, the Atlanta Falcons.
Coleman grew up rooting for the Falcons as a player at Brunswick High School. Coleman, it seems, has completed the transformation into an athletic traitor to his home state, thanks to the Patriots’ Super Bowl comeback and four years in Knoxville. Georgia did sweep Tennessee in all four of Coleman’s collegiate seasons.
“I have my arguments with people here, there are a bunch of Dawg fans here,” Coleman said. “It was weird playing the Falcons, growing up a Falcons fan. It’s a blessing that I was able to get the opportunity. So every time I hear somebody talk about the Bulldogs or Patriots, I’m just thankful I’m able to go through this whole process.”
Coleman logged time in 10 games for the Patriots in the 2016 season. Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan took most of the reps as the team’s top two defensive backs. Coleman, 2016 second round draft pick Cyrus Jones and former Philadelphia corner Eric Rowe competed for playing time as the Patriots third defensive back.
The former Pirate has nothing guaranteed next season, but it’s not the first time he’s had to fight for a roster spot.
“I feel like I’m always confident,” Coleman said. “If you’re not ready it’s just going to hit you in the face, and you’re not going to know what happened.”
Coleman’s path to a spot on the Patriots’ roster became cloudy immediately after the Super Bowl. In March, the Patriots signed former Buffalo Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore for $13 million per year, anticipating Ryan would sign elsewhere — he did; a $30 million, multi-year deal with the Tennessee Titans. Reports out of Foxboro, Mass., chronicled Butler’s frustrations when the Patriots didn’t offer the All-Pro cornerback what he deemed a justifiable raise, and it was possible he’d be traded.
But Butler stayed and makes up one half of what could prove to be a lethal duo covering the defending champion’s opposing wide receivers in 2017. With the top two spots locked down, Coleman is searching for his opening.
Coleman, with two season in the NFL, is more experienced than Jones (second season) and undrafted free agents D.J. Killings and Kenny Moore (both rookies).
Perhaps that experience is an advantage, Coleman said, but experience doesn’t seal a roster spot. Performance does.
“The guy who makes the most plays a produces the most is the one who plays,” Coleman said. “Experience doesn’t matter when it comes to production.”
Though change tends to come quickly in Coleman’s life, it comes slowly in Brunswick, he said. On Saturday, he hosted a sporting goods shopping spree for 10 youth football players affiliated with the Southern Elite Football Conference.
He’s visited Brunswick a handful of times since the Super Bowl, once to surprise his grandmother on her birthday. Brunswick’s stability is sort of a relief to the northern transplant, particularly when it comes to home cooking.
“A lot of times I come down here and ask my grandmother to cook seafood,” Coleman said. “I don’t get the same type of food up north.
“Brunswick doesn’t change too often. Every time I come here it’s the same thing. There might be some new stores or something, but it’s always the same. That’s what I like about it. When I come home, I expect it to feel like home.”