FOXBORO, Mass. — Ty Law. Asante Samuel. Darrelle Revis. Stephon Gilmore. J.C. Jackson.
Throughout the Bill Belichick era, the Patriots almost always have had a top-flight outside cornerback capable of stopping the NFL’s best receivers. So, many were stunned when New England let Jackson walk during the offseason and entered training camp with Jalen Mills, Malcolm Butler, Terrance Mitchell and rookie Jack Jones lined up as its top boundary corners.
Some of those fears were eased by Mills’ impressive summer. But anyone who’s watched the veteran throughout his career knows he’s less of a No. 1 cornerback and more of a solid No. 2 with valuable versatility in the secondary.
However, something happened late in camp that flew under the radar but, in hindsight, was a sign of things to come — and made perfect sense.
Jonathan Jones, who missed much of last season after undergoing shoulder surgery, began playing far more outside corner than slot corner, his typical position. The 2016 undrafted free agent had earned a reputation as one of the NFL’s best slot corners and more underrated players — as said by Steve Belichick in early June — but his move to the outside was viewed by some as a reflection of the Patriots’ desperation at cornerback and not of Jones’ ability to fill that role.
Well, the Patriots clearly knew what they were doing. Jones, not Mills, played like New England’s top corner in its first two games and currently carries the 20th-best coverage grade on Pro Football Focus — and we’d argue he should be much higher on the list. (Jones’ highest-graded campaign was in 2020 when he was PFF’s fifth-ranked corner overall.)
His performance shouldn’t surprise anyone. Jones’ skill and athleticism have enabled him to defend Tyreek Hill at a high level over the years, including another excellent showing in Week 1. And Jones was his usual, lockdown self in last Sunday’s win over the Pittsburgh Steelers — as evidenced by Mitch Trubisky not targeting him once. Trubisky might’ve been acting on a mandate from Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, who before the game praised Jones and essentially called him a No. 1 cornerback.
But why was Jones able to make such a smooth transition from the slot to the outside? According to Bill Belichick, it’s a combination of factors: talent, work ethic, toughness and experience at multiple positions, including slot and boundary cornerback.
“Jones (has) got a lot of things going for him,” the Patriots head coach said before Friday’s practice. “Good skillset. He’s very fast, he’s tough, he’s strong for his size. He’s a smart player. I think, when you play one position and you move to another one, it gives you an advantage a little bit because you’ve played that spot and you know what’s going on in there. Whether that’s a corner moving to safety, moving them inside to outside or outside to inside or outside linebacker moving to inside or vice versa.
“If the player can do that, if he has that type of versatility, then I think a lot of times, he just has a better understanding and communication. It’s easier for him to figure out, ‘What’s harder for me, what’s harder for that guy, because I’ve played both spots?’ — and how to manage those problems. Bunch sets and different formations.”
Belichick added: “Smart, tough, fast, very competitive. Again, has a good deal of experience, has played safety as well. I mean, this guy’s played every position in the secondary and I think in the long run, if he can do it, then I think it’s a good thing.”
Safety Devin McCourty agrees with Belichick’s assessment, and also believes Jones’ football IQ is one of his greatest assets.
“Super knowledgeable of football, like what’s going on,” McCourty told NESN.com on Friday and added “no doubt” when asked whether Jones is underrated nationally. “And then, the want-to. I mean, it’s hard for players, mentally, to now think of different things (like) using the sideline. Now he’s not as much involved in run reads, thinks like that. But the crazy thing is, when he was a rookie, he was playing special teams just trying to play defense. He was inside, he was outside. So, just great versatility. And I think the world of him as far as knowledgeable and being able to play multiple positions.”
As he’s done before, McCourty highlighted Jones’ success against Hill as an example of him being a high-end corner.
“His ability to go out there and cover Tyreek Hill — no one ever gave him credit for that,” McCourty said. “And he’s done that time and time (again) for us, going out there and matching up against him.”
The bad news for the Patriots is that Jones is scheduled to become a free agent after this season. Extending the Auburn product was a no-brainer in 2019, but it could be a different story this time around. Jones recently turned 29 years old, and succeeding as an outside corner could earn him a price tag that New England is unwilling to pay.
McCourty understandably is rooting for his Patriots teammate to cash in.
“Hopefully this year he gets a little bit more credit,” McCourty said. “And contract year, so hopefully it pays off for him when he signs a new contract.”
Jones and the Patriots will cross that bridge when they get to it. For now, all that matters is Jones is playing as well as he ever as, and at a time when his team needs it the most.