FOXBORO, Mass. — The Patriots had a strong rookie class last season, especially on defense, where Chandler Jones, Dont’a Hightower and Alfonzo Dennard all earned starting roles. But Jones was playing on a different level to start the season, racking up six sacks and eight quarterback hits in the first eight weeks of the season.
An ankle injury appeared to slow Jones down as the season progressed, though. In the final eight weeks (in which Jones played six games), the rookie didn’t pick up another sack and only had one quarterback hit. During training camp this year, Jones is trying to better himself as a player and a teammate.
“Just to become a better all-around player,” Jones said on offseason goals. “Just to become a lead defensive end. Just do my job. That’s my No. 1 goal.”
Jones posted an Instagram video during the offseason of him watching film with some of the rookies like Jamie Collins and Michael Buchanan, Jones is trying to do some of the things his teammates did for him last season.
“When I got here last year, there were guys that took me under their wing,” Jones said. “We had Vince Wilfork, we had Brandon Deaderick and we had Rob Ninkovich. We had a lot of guys who were in that D-line room and even Jamie Collins is a part of that front seven and Michael Buchanan and a whole bunch of those guys. I just told them to come over and watch some film.”
Jones has been working in a few different roles this training camp. He’s mostly playing his normal seven-technique right defense end position, but he’s also been lined up at five-technique defensive end in the 3-4 and standing up as an outside linebacker. If the hope is for Jones to play more of an interior role as a five-tech, he would likely have to add weight. Jones said he worked on upper-body strength this offseason.
“As far as you know, weightlifting, I just spent this whole offseason focusing on upper body strength,” Jones said. “Becoming a better No. 95 and a better teammate.”
Jones wouldn’t talk about playing specific positions and said he’ll play wherever Bill Belichick tells him to.
“Whatever Bill tells me to do,” Jones said. “Wherever he draws up on the board and 95 is there. I’ll be there. If Bill wants 95 to be there. That’s where I’ll be.”
Jones and Ninkovich appear to have the top two defensive end spots locked down again. Behind Jones and Ninkovich, there are plenty of players fighting for just a few spots. Jermaine Cunningham appeared to be No. 3 on the depth chart, but he missed practice on Friday. Marcus Benard took his role, but Justin Francis has also been taking a lot of reps. Behind those players, Jake Bequette, Buchanan and Jason Vega are all fighting for snaps.
The Patriots’ pass defense in general must be better this season. If Jones can step up and be a “lead defensive end,” that increased pass rush will pay huge dividends for the cornerbacks and safeties, who were forced to cover for longer periods of time last season.