FOXBORO, Mass. — Throughout his first NFL training camp, Cyrus Jones has pulled double duty.
The New England Patriots rookie spends the majority of his practice time working with his position group — the cornerbacks. He runs through drills with his fellow defensive backs, jockeys with wide receivers in 1-on-1s and frequently works with New England’s first-team defense during 11-on-11s.
But while Jones should see plenty of playing time on the defensive side of the ball this season, the Patriots didn’t use a second-round draft pick on him just because he’s skilled in coverage.
Jones built a reputation as a dangerous punt returner during his time at Alabama, and Patriots coach Bill Belichick has given him plenty of opportunities to showcase those skills, pulling him away from defensive drills several times each practice to catch punts from Ryan Allen under the watchful eye of special teams coach Joe Judge.
“Obviously, they know that I can make plays in the punt return game, and I’m just trying to add value to myself,” Jones said after Monday’s training camp session. “Whatever they want me to do, I’m going to try my best and do that to the best of my ability. I’m a competitor, so I always want to compete at everything I do and go make the best of it and make an impact wherever I am on the field.”
DeAndre Carter, Chris Harper, Keshawn Martin, Chris Hogan, Matthew Slater and the recently activated Julian Edelman all have caught punts or kicks at some point during camp, but Jones and fellow rookie V’Angelo Bentley have been by far the most frequently used return men. Both work extensively with Allen during practice and typically remain on the field afterward to catch additional punts launched from a JUGS machine.
“I think I’m doing a pretty good job of being consistent,” Jones said. “I always can get better, so I’m just trying to eliminate the drops and the muffs altogether and totally just get rid of that out of my game and just be reliable at all times. That’s what I’m focused on. I think the biggest part of punt return: possessing the ball. Once you do that, then you can use your athletic ability. But if you don’t do that, you can’t do anything.”
Jones led all of Division I in punt returns (42), punt return yards (530) and punt return touchdowns (four) last season, but he downplayed his collegiate success when asked about it. The precision and leg power of NFL punters, he says, makes returning punts at this level much more difficult that it is in college.
Jones believes physical tools only can get you so far, however, which is why he’s using his first NFL camp to fine-tune himself mentally.
“I think this game is more mental than it is physical,” he said. “Before you know what you’re doing, you can’t do anything. With punt returns, until you possess the ball, you can’t use your athletic ability. It’s the same thing with whatever position you play. Unless you know what you’re doing and know your assignment, you can’t go out and use your gifts that you’ve been blessed with.”
Jones should get his first taste of NFL action Thursday night when the Patriots host the New Orleans Saints in the preseason opener for both teams.
Thumbnail photo via Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports Images
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