New England Patriots cornerback Jonathan Jones seemed to be on a similar career path to Matthew Slater after his rookie season. Now, three years later, Jones has diverged and could wind up being the team’s next Devin McCourty.
Buried on the defensive depth chart, Jones played just 64 defensive snaps to his 307 special-teams reps as a rookie in 2016. The undrafted free agent out of Auburn was behind cornerbacks Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, Eric Rowe, Justin Coleman and Cyrus Jones and only played four games on defense. Ryan and Chung primarily played in the slot. Jones finished third behind Nate Ebner and Barkevious Mingo in special-teams snaps.
Jones’ defensive snaps saw a precipitous rise in 2017, however. With Ryan gone to the Tennessee Titans, Jones finished third among cornerbacks in snaps behind Butler and Stephon Gilmore. Jones and Chung split the slot role. Jones finished second after Jordan Richards in special-teams snaps. There’s a case to be made that the Patriots would have won Super Bowl LII if Jones didn’t injure his foot in the divisional round of the playoffs that year.
Jones saw his defensive snaps rise again in 2018 as he finished third among cornerbacks in defensive snaps behind Gilmore and Jason McCourty. He was the Patriots’ top slot cornerback for most of the year and took on a primary role at safety in the Patriots’ Super Bowl LIII win over the Los Angles Rams.
There’s been another dramatic shift in 2019 through two games.
Here were Jones’ defensive/special teams snap percentage splits in his first three seasons:
In 2019, Jones has played 75.19% of defensive snaps and just 35.85% of special teams snaps. He’s fourth among all players in defensive playtime and 14th in special teams snaps.
Granted, it’s only a two-game sample size, and this could shift as the season goes along. But it doesn’t seem like a coincidence that Jones has seen his defensive snaps increase to go along with a new contract that’s paying him like one of the NFL’s better nickel cornerbacks.
Jones still maintains his role as a gunner on the punt team opposite Slater. But otherwise, his special teams usage has dipped, especially on kickoffs, despite him being one of the Patriots’ best players in the kicking game.
Head coach Bill Belichick went long Tuesday in a conference call explaining how the Patriots divvy those snaps up between players who contribute on offense or defense and the kicking game.
“It would just all depend on week-to-week, again, that player, what the roles are, what the depth is on offense or defense, what the depth is in the kicking game at that position and I would say how important we think that role is,” Belichick said. “For example, if we were expecting the opponent’s kicker to be kicking touchbacks, maybe his role on the kickoff return team wouldn’t be as important as a role in something else. Again, there are a lot of factors there to consider.”
On Sunday, in the Patriots’ 43-0 win over the Miami Dolphins, Jones started over Chung as a safety. He only wound up playing seven snaps in the game at free safety, but that’s the second most playing time he’s received at the position after Super Bowl LIII.
“Jon’s really worked hard since he’s been with us,” Belichick said. “He started off primarily in a special teams role, and then that expanded to some situational things on defense to really our nickel corner to safety. He’s just continued to expand his role for us defensively which has given us more flexibility and we’ve been able to find more opportunities to get him on the field. He’s a smart kid, he works hard and has good instincts and has a good understanding of our defensive system, so it allows him to do a lot of different things for us.”
Jones has three pass breakups in two games this season, and he’s let up just three catches on 10 targets for 16 yards. He was one of the Patriots’ best players this summer in training camp, and that trend has continued into the season.
Devin McCourty is in the final year of his contract. If he doesn’t return in 2020, then Duron Harmon would be the favorite to take over his starting role at free safety. Or the Patriots could shift Jones into that position. It worked to move McCourty from cornerback and shift him back to safety in 2012. That Jones already is playing safety shows the Patriots are keeping an open mind about his role.
He certainly has the speed to play single-high safety. Notice Belichick also praised Jones for his instincts and football smarts.