FOXBORO, Mass. — Looking for a player with something to prove in Thursday night’s New England Patriots preseason opener? Look no further than cornerback Cyrus Jones, who desperately wants to put his nightmare rookie season behind him.
Jones was the biggest disappointment of the Patriots’ otherwise sensational 2016 campaign, which he began as New England’s top draft pick (60th overall) and ended as a healthy scratch for the entire postseason.
The Alabama product was a complete non-factor on defense (just 147 snaps all season) and a massive liability in the return game, which had been his greatest strength during his time with the Crimson Tide. He fumbled a team-high five times, made poor and puzzling decisions on several other returns and, by the end of the season, had gotten so far inside his own head that he reached a point where he no longer wanted to play football.
Jones, of course, did not end up quitting, and after struggling mightily in spring practice, the 23-year-old has looked like a new man since training camp began two weeks ago, at least from a special teams perspective.
Though he’s yet to show much as a cornerback — he remains buried on the depth chart behind Malcolm Butler, Stephon Gilmore, Eric Rowe, Jonathan Jones and maybe even an undrafted rookie or two — Jones has been a steady and reliable return man. He muffed the first kickoff he fielded in New England’s very first training camp practice but has been perfect on every kick and punt sent his way in the 11 sessions since.
“I’m feeling pretty confident,” said Jones, who switched from No. 24 to No. 41 this spring following Gilmore’s arrival. “You gain confidence by coming out here and being consistent at practice. And I haven’t been doing anything special — just come out here and keep stringing good days together and keep the ball off the ground.”
He added: “Stringing good days together eventually becomes a habit. Consistency, that’s where it builds from.”
The Patriots have tried out a number of return men during camp, but none has worked more with punter Ryan Allen than Jones, who sometimes bypasses cornerback drills to take extra reps as a punt returner. Having Jones emerge as the go-to guy in that spot would be a boon for the Patriots, who were forced to use No. 1 receiver Julian Edelman there at times last season.
“When it’s time for me to play defense, that’s what I’m focusing on,” Jones said, explaining how he juggles his two roles. “When it’s time for me to return, that’s what I’m focusing on. (It’s about) not having those two things mix together.”
Jones declined to comment on the progress he’s made (“I’m not really into measuring where I am”), but he certainly appears to be in a better spot than he was in at the start of camp. He still is far from a roster lock, however, and will have a chance to bolster his case Thursday night against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Expect Jones to see plenty of action in the exhibition contest, as potential punt returners Edelman, Danny Amendola and Brandin Cooks all are unlikely to play.
“Just get a chance to be out there, go make some plays and just have fun,” Jones said.
Thumbnail photo via Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports Images