The New England Patriots have added an undersized cornerback that many project will slide into the slot, even though they played on the outside in college football's toughest conference. Head coach Bill Belichick and company love his speed and athleticism and believe that he can continue to compete in the NFL.
No, we're not talking about 2nd round pick Cyrus Jones out of Alabama. We're talking about undrafted free agent Jonathan Jones out of Auburn.
There's a habit of analysts to categorize and project shorter cornerbacks as "slot cornerbacks" in the NFL because it's the easy and lazy analysis. According to Pro Football Focus, Jones spent a mere 1% of his time in the slot last season, and his change-of-direction ability doesn't exactly shout slot coverage!
Jones is 5'9 1/8 and 186 lbs, slightly smaller than Malcolm Butler (5'9 6/8, 187 lbs) and Cyrus (5'9 7/8, 197 lbs), but he is far more athletic. He ran a position-best 4.33 second 40 yard dash at the NFL Combine, ahead of Cyrus' 4.49 and Butler's 4.62 (although Butler reportedly ran in the 4.4s when the Patriots gave him a private workout).
|Player||Ryan||Butler||C. Jones||J. Jones|
|Height||5'11 1/8||5'9 6/8||5'9 7/8||5'9 1/8|
|40 Yd (s)||4.56||4.62||4.49||4.33|
|3 Cone (s)||6.69||7.20||6.71||7.25|
When we compare Jones to the other cornerbacks, it's clear that he's not the biggest or the quickest, but he's the fastest, strongest, and most explosive.
Jones was thrust into the Auburn defense as a true freshman and started for the past two seasons, collecting 24 passes defended, 7 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles, and 2.5 tackles for loss. Auburn used him in both man and zone coverage, but was asked to play "off man" with a sizable cushion that led to a few easy completions against him.
He likes to attack the run, although that off man cushion left him away from the play more often than not. His strength allows him to set the edge when blocked by a receiver, and he is able to shed and make a tackle attempt. Pro Football Focus (PFF) notes that Jones was the 3rd best tackling cornerback in his conference last season; his size doesn't seem to affect his ability to attack the ball carrier.
Jones also stood out during the Senior Bowl when he received the highest grade from PFF in 1-on-1 drills and was the 2nd best defender in the game (Cyrus Jones was the 3rd best).
There was a reason why Jones was undrafted, though, and it was beyond his stature; he has a history of injuries, including a broken ankle that derailed his sophomore season, and a foot surgery that seriously impacted his production this past year.
Jones had surgery in the spring of 2015 and he claims that he wasn't fully healed for the start of the season.
"It was something that aggravated me and I didn't really have time to fully recover from it," Jones said, via AL.com. "At the end of the day I had to fight through it."
"He was banged up most of the year," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said about Jones. "There was a lot of weeks that he didn't really practice [but] he played. He's a tough guy. He's a great competitor.
"He's that guy in the fourth quarter, when the game is on the line, he's telling everybody 'you got to get it done.' He was a true blessing to coach. He'll make it. He'll be very successful. He can run, he plays bigger than he is. He can tackle [and is] a great special teams player."
Jones is going to have to make the team as a special teams gunner before he can compete for a starting spot and he has all of the tools to succeed- from both a physical and mental stand point.
"I think you have to come in here [to the Patriots], be humble and start from the bottom," Jones told the Patriots media earlier this week. "They truly believe that you get what you earn, so you come here, you put in the work, you put in the time and preparation and the rest is up to the coaches to make their decisions."
Don't be surprised if Jones is one of the undrafted players that make the Patriots roster on an annual basis. The Patriots gave him the most guaranteed money of any undrafted rookie over the past five seasons as a sign of their interest. His superior explosion and strength more-than makes up for his height, while his Butler-like quickness points towards success as an outside cornerback.
Jones cited Butler's success with the Patriots as one of the reasons why he came to New England- and the Patriots have to be excited with his confidence.
And one final note: Jones might have been surprised when the Patriots called after the draft. New England was one of just three teams not to meet with him at the NFL Combine.