Marcus Jones Film Review: How Ultra-Versatile DB Can Help Patriots

Jones played corner, slot, safety, kick return, punt return and receiver in 2021


May 11, 2022

The New England Patriots’ first two picks in the 2022 NFL Draft elicited similar complaints from fans and pundits.

Chattanooga guard Cole Strange in Round 1? Reach.

Baylor wide receiver Tyquan Thornton in Round 2? Reach, and a puzzling one at that.

New England’s third selection, however, has received largely positive reviews. Why?

Well, for starters, cornerback Marcus Jones came off the board roughly when expected (third round, 85th overall), which tends to result in a higher in-the-moment draft guide. But beyond pre-draft projections, Jones is an athletic, aggressive and versatile player who could help the Patriots in as many as three (yes, three) phases.

We reviewed Jones’ college film to learn more about what the talented Houston defensive back/return man will bring to New England. Here’s what we found:

The best word to describe Jones’ coverage ability is “sticky.” He has the speed and quickness to stick with receivers on deep and underneath routes …

… and the ball skills to disrupt at the catch point, as evidenced by his five interceptions and 18 passes defended last season.

Rarely in the five games we studied was Jones’ man able to gain more than a foot or so of separation. Opposing quarterbacks completed just 48.7% of their passes when targeting him in 2021, per Pro Football Focus.

Though he’s nowhere near the prototypical size for his position — at 5-foot-8, 174 pounds, he ranked in the first percentile for height, the second percentile for weight and the zero-ith percentile in arm length — Houston mostly deployed Jones as an outside cornerback, regularly matching him up against the opponent’s No. 1 wideout.

Against Cincinnati, he shadowed Alec Pierce, who was selected three picks after Thornton in the second round. Against SMU, he saw a lot of third-rounder Danny Gray. Against Texas Tech, it was Erik Ezukanma (fourth round). Jones held his own against each of those pass-catchers — registering an especially impressive end-zone breakup against Pierce — despite giving up at least six inches to all three. But his diminutive stature did become a detriment at times.

Pierce, Gray and Ezukanma all bested Jones in contested-catch situations, using their pure size and strength advantage to overcome the cornerback’s tight coverage.

Jones’ role is likely to change at the NFL level, where he profiles as more of a slot option. Having both him and Jonathan Jones at their disposal should be helpful when the Patriots face the Miami Dolphins’ lighting-fast duo of Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. Marcus Jones also should be better equipped to cover a player like Buffalo’s Isaiah McKenzie than Myles Bryant, who was torched by McKenzie late last season.

Though the majority of his snaps came outside, Jones also played in the slot and as a deep safety, so he’s accustomed to handling multiple roles. He’s also an authoritative and effective run defender despite his lack of bulk, though he’ll need to wrap up more consistently rather than simply throwing his shoulder into ball carriers. That won’t cut it against some of the NFL’s sturdier rushers.

Jones also plays with a never-give-up attitude that’s sure to endear him to Patriots coaches. Case in point:

Jones can be an asset in the secondary, but he’s a bona fide weapon as a returner.

There wasn’t a better return man in college football over the past few seasons, as Jones tied an NCAA record with nine career special teams touchdowns (six on punts, three on kickoffs). He averaged 28.8 yards per kickoff return and 13.5 yards per punt return, displaying a lethal combo of breakaway speed, slippery elusiveness and vision to find the creases in front of him.

Jones returned two punts and two kickoffs for touchdowns last season, including a remarkable 100-yard game-winner in the final minute against previously undefeated SMU.

“He’s the best returner in the country,” Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen told reporters after that game. “The things he does are unbelievable.”

With 2020 All-Pro Gunner Olszewski signing with the Pittsburgh Steelers this offseason, the Patriots have voids at punt and kick returner. Assuming Jones is healthy — he’s coming off double shoulder surgery but said he’ll be ready for training camp — he’ll be the favorite to win both of those jobs.

This may prove to be no more than a novelty, but Houston chose to add wide receiver duties to Jones’ workload early last season, and he delivered some notable highlights in that role. He hauled in a nifty over-the-shoulder catch against Rice and scored a 47-yard deep-ball touchdown against Navy, finishing the year with 10 receptions for 109 yards and one score.

Jones’ productive offensive cameos helped earn him the Paul Hornung Award, which recognizes “the most versatile player in college football.”

Most of Jones’ wideout reps aren’t readily available online, but at least one prominent draft analyst believes he has a legitimate chance to contribute on offense for New England.

“Do not be surprised to see Bill Belichick find ways to use Marcus Jones not only as a slot corner, but also as a receiver,” NFL Media’s Lance Zierlein tweeted on draft night. “He was absolutely unguardable getting in and out of his routes when he was given receiver reps at Houston. Electric with the ball in his hands.”

Of course, if there’s any coach who would be willing to utilize a player on both sides of the ball, it’s Belichick. He has a storied history of plugging defensive players into offensive roles (Mike Vrabel, Elandon Roberts) and vice versa (Julian Edelman, Matthew Slater).

Thumbnail photo via Maria Lysaker/USA TODAY Sports Images
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