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A tale of two rookie seasons: Cyrus Jones and Malcolm Mitchell

It was the best of rookie seasons, it was the worst of rookie seasons for WR Malcolm Mitchell and CB/KR/PR Cyrus Jones respectively.

Of the Patriots 2016 draft class, I expected Cyrus Jones, Joe Thuney, and Malcolm Mitchell each to be solid contributors in their first year with the team. Even as a rookie, Thuney was the best interior OL on the team although the improvements for both David Andrews and Shaq Mason have cut that gap considerably, and was pretty much a lock to start at LG from Day 1. Cyrus Jones was expected to handle kickoff and punt return duties while playing sparingly as a corner while doing his work away from the cameras. Malcolm Mitchell had a tougher rotation to crack through, but injuries threatened to slow that development down although he flashed early with Jimmy Garoppolo playing QB. While Mitchell wasn’t much of a factor through Weeks 3-10, he returned with a vengeance in Week 11 and has been the team’s 2nd best WR behind another offseason pickup in Chris Hogan (Sorry Jules, but the 2 drops a game don’t help your case).

Cyrus Jones’ struggles: The Patriots drafted Cyrus Jones in the 2nd round after a run of defensive backs started. I thought the Patriots over-drafted him a round (I had him going to NE at 96 overall), I didn’t hate that because I was loved the 4-down fit. It was similar type reasoning that the Patriots picked him over players with similar value. The Patriots had Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, and Justin Coleman as the top 3 CBs so there was less pressure for him to develop quickly at CB which has been somewhat inconsistent for him. Jones has the athletic tools necessary to be a capable CB, but you expect growing pains there with a rookie although he was hit for a 47-yard completion after getting caught looking at the QB in man coverage.

On special teams, Jones has been an unmitigated disaster with issues handling punts that only seem to happen in games. It’s pretty clear his head isn’t in the right place as he’s playing timid and almost expecting to muff or fumble a punt. That’s not the right mind set to succeed and clearly Jones needs to be taken out of high-pr essure situations in order to build up that confidence. While the game is still in doubt, I think the Patriots should let Patrick Chung, James White, or Griff Whalen handle punts and let Jones return kickoffs. When Jones doesn’t mishandle a punt, he’s got pretty good instincts on the return although I’d prefer better ball-handling in traffic going forward. With a rookie whose confidence is at an all-time low, I don’t think Belichick will tear into him too hard because you don’t want to ruin the guy’s career even if a small minority of fans would prefer he be unemployed.

Best case scenario for Jones is to flush the bad year out of his memory and work his butt off in the offseason to address the issues catching punts. If necessary, he can ask Frank Edelman (Julian’s dad) and Ryan Allen to help him out, as Frank can give Jones the same workout he gave his son in preparation for the NFL. This will be a critical offseason in Jones’ development as I think he’s short on confidence for now, but the Patriots spent a 2nd round pick on him so they highly value him. With Logan Ryan’s impending unrestricted free agency in 2016 (Ryan is a #2/3 guy on the outside but can play inside as well), there is an opportunity to seize the #3 CB spot in the rotation next year.

Malcolm Mitchell’s rise: Opportunities in the NFL are rare, some players only get one, but Malcolm Mitchell is making the most of his. I had the Patriots trading back from the pick they got for Chandler Jones, although I expected them to use the 3rd, not the 4th from the deal on Mitchell. With Rob Gronkowski on injured reserve, the Patriots have altered their base offensive personnel from 12 to 11 (WR, TE, RB) although we’ve seen some 13 and 21 personnel groups when the team wants to run the ball. Mitchell has seen his snap count dramatically increase with the personnel change and before Danny Amendola’s injury was firmly entrenched as the #3 WR. In his last 4 games, Mitchell has caught 21 passes for 263 yards and 4 TD. His overall season is starting to look very good with 28 catches for 358 yards and those 4 TD, quickly approaching the numbers that Aaron Dobson and Deion Branch put up in 2013 and 2002. I think Mitchell’s career will be closer to Branch’s than Dobson’s.

One the standout traits for Mitchell has been his enormously-large hands and his ability to use them to catch the ball away from the body. Mitchell’s hand width measured at 10.5” at the combine and it shows up in games. In that 4-game run, Mitchell has caught 21 of 29 targets (71%) and for the overall season 28 of 42 (67%). Even though losing Gronk hurts the offense overall, the emergence of Mitchell as a legitimate #4 target behind Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, and Martellus Bennett gives the Patriots 5 potent pass catchers when you include James White and Dion Lewis. Extrapolating his numbers over a full season Mitchell is on pace for 52 targets, 35 catches, 450 yards, and 6 TD. That’s closer to Branch than Dobson, with the latter being force-fed the ball.

Watching the games, it’s clear that Mitchell has a firm grasp of the playbook and is always at the right place at the right time. His routes are fairly crisp, but could use some polish at the top of the stem. His best routes are shorter routes like the 5-yard out and the slant. Mitchell is also adept at feeling out where the QB is going as he’s scrambling and finding the right spot to sit down, with Mitchell saving Brady’s bacon on three notable occasions the last four weeks and turning it into huge plays. Assuming Mitchell stays healthy through the rest of the season and offseason, the Patriots will have a solid trio of WRs in Edelman, Hogan, and Mitchell, all of whom complement each other well. Edelman is the security blanket and the primary chain mover between the hashes, Mitchell moves the chains outside the numbers and in the red zone, and Hogan is the deep threat in the offense. If the Patriots can retain Bennett and keep Gronk healthy, 2017 could be the best skill player group Brady has ever had to work with, with respect to the 2007 team that featured an NFL HOFer in Moss and Patriots HOFers Wes Welker and Kevin Faulk.