With the 85th overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, the New England Patriots added a ball-hawking cornerback.
And an electric punt returner.
And a game-wrecking kick returner.
And maybe even an occasional wide receiver, too.
For a team that’s always valued versatility, it’s no surprise the Patriots used a third-round draft choice on Houston’s Marcus Jones, who was quite literally, in the eyes of the voting committee for the Paul Hornung Award, “the most versatile player in college football” last season.
Just take a look at Jones’ résumé:
— As a defender, he intercepted five passes and broke up 13 more in 13 games last season, splitting his time between outside (412 snaps), slot (123 snaps) and box (53 snaps) alignments, per Pro Football Focus. PFF credited him with 16 forced incompletions, which ranked second in the nation.
Across his four-year college career, which he split between Troy and Houston, he tallied 10 picks and 42 passes defended. He’s also a physical player and willing tackler who plays bigger than his diminutive 5-foot-8, 174-pound stature.
— As a return man, he tied an NCAA record with nine career touchdowns — six on kickoffs and another three on punts. He notched two of each in 2021, earning Special Teams Player of the Year honors in the American Athletic Conference.
His career marks:
Kickoff returns: 72 for 2,075 yards (28.8 per return) and six touchdowns
Punt returns: 65 for 875 yards (13.5 per return) and three touchdowns
NFL Media’s Lance Zierlein called Jones a “shop-wrecking special-teams talent” in the vein of former Kansas City Chiefs standout Dante Hall.
“It’s impossible to talk about Jones without waxing on the value he could bring as a returner,” his entry in PFF’s 2022 draft guide read. “He averaged 14.4 yards per punt return and 34.2 yards per kick return this past season as the highest-graded returner in the country.”
One of Jones’ kick-return scores last season was a game-winning 100-yarder with less than 30 seconds remaining in the third quarter:
— As a receiver, he caught 10 passes for 109 yards and a touchdown last season. That’s not much in terms of volume, but Zierlein believes he has the pass-catching chops to contribute on offense at the NFL level, calling him “absolutely unguardable.”
Patriots director of player personnel Matt Groh said Houston coach Dana Holgersen using Jones in such a wide variety of ways spoke to how dynamic of a playmaker he is.
“You’re talking about a team in Houston that Coach Holgersen’s had really good teams there and been able to put up a lot of points,” Groh said in his post-draft Zoom call, “and this guy was dynamic enough that they take one of their best players on defense and put him on offense, and then they put him back there on punt returns and kick returns.”
It’s unclear whether the Patriots plan to tap into one, two or all three aspects of Jones’ multifaceted skill set. At the very least, he’ll provide some much-needed depth at cornerback, where the Patriots were painfully shallow last season.
Jones said he’s willing to play inside, outside or even safety, but his size — he’ll be the smallest defensive player on the Patriots’ roster — seems best suited for the slot, where the Patriots are getting starter Jonathan Jones back from a season-ending shoulder injury. The elder Jones also is entering a contract year.
Marcus Jones also becomes the favorite to succeed 2020 All-Pro Gunner Olszewski, now with Pittsburgh, as the Patriots’ top return man. Veteran newcomer Jabrill Peppers also is a candidate for that role, but he lacks the rookie’s game-breaking upside.
And Bill Belichick never has been shy about using players on the opposite side of the ball — see: Julian Edelman, Matthew Slater, Elandon Roberts — so perhaps Jones could see some reps on offense, as well.
“In high school, I played a lot of different positions,” Jones, who visited the Patriots during the pre-draft process, said Friday night in his introductory conference call. “Wherever they wanted me at. Just usually over time, whenever I played, coaches would ask me what I would be down for. And however I could help the team, I was always down for it. Whether the coach wanted me to be offense, I’d do that to help the team, or defense, I’d do that to help the team. …
“In New England, wherever they need me to be, it’s the same way.”
Regardless, Jones will be one of the most exciting players to watch once he hits the field for his first Patriots practices. He is recovering from offseason surgery on both of his shoulders but said he expects to be healthy in time for training camp.