Much attention has been given to the New England Patriots starting duo of Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore, with lesser thought given to the slot cornerback. Some assume that Butler will kick inside and allow Eric Rowe to play on the outside (I’m in this camp), but the Patriots are trying to see if they can find a defensive back that can play in the slot full time.
If you asked anyone which player on the roster would make the most sense, sophomore second round CB Cyrus Jones would be a natural option. He has the draft pedigree and his similarity to former Patriots slot CB Logan Ryan was a major selling point.
But according to ESPN’s Mike Reiss, there’s a different player making his case to join the starting line-up.
“Thursday's voluntary organized team activity provided an initial glimpse of how the coaching staff views some its personnel options,” Reiss writes. “Jonathan Jones, the 2016 undrafted free agent from Auburn who made a significant impact on special teams as a rookie, received the majority of work [in the slot] with Gilmore and Butler. There's a long way to go, and it bears repeating to be careful reading too much into what we see at OTAs, but I was struck by the one-day snapshot of how Jones seemed to be ahead of 2016 top pick Cyrus Jones (second round, No. 60 overall) when looking solely at defense.”
Jonathan Jones, an undrafted player out of Auburn in 2016, made the roster due to his special teams ability as a gunner and he earned some playing time on defense in week 5 against the Cleveland Browns when Cyrus Jones was ejected for throwing a punch.
Jonathan also saw some playing time down the back-stretch of the season, but finished his rookie year with 64 defensive snaps. In comparison, Cyrus Jones finished the year with 147 defensive snaps, despite being a healthy scratch for part of the season.
The Patriots are no strangers to starting or retaining undrafted players over more highly-regarded prospects, which is one of the reasons why agents often send their undrafted players to New England. Here’s a short history of the Patriots leaning on undrafted players.
2009: Brian Hoyer over Kevin O’Connell
The Patriots drafted O’Connell in the third round of the 2008 NFL Draft. After just one season, the Patriots released O’Connell in favor of moving forward with undrafted rookie QB Brian Hoyer.
2010: BenJarvus Green-Ellis over Laurence Maroney
The Patriots drafted Maroney in the first round of the 2006 NFL Draft and he is actually one of the most productive running backs in franchise history (a reflection of the team’s ability to churn through ball carriers). BenJarvus Green-Ellis toiled on special teams for a couple years, but the Patriots traded Maroney at the start of the 2010 season, opening the door for Green-Ellis to be the Patriots first 1,000-yard rusher since Corey Dillon.
2010-11: Kyle Arrington over Terrence Wheatley, Jonathan Wilhite, Darius Butler
Not every move panned out, but the Patriots moved on from their trio of highly drafted defensive backs heading into the 2011 NFL season. Both Arrington and Devin McCourty were starters in 2010, leading to 2008 second round CB Terrence Wheatley’s release midseason. The Patriots cut both Wilhite and Butler heading into 2011.
2010-12: Danny Woodhead over Shane Vereen
Vereen ultimately panned out in New England, but the Patriots played the undrafted Danny Woodhead over their 2011 second round RB Shane Vereen until Woodhead left in free agency.
2013: Ryan Allen over Zoltan Mesko
This move might not get a lot of attention, but the Patriots drafted Mesko in the fifth round of the 2010 NFL Draft at 150th overall, the first punter off the board. After three years, the Patriots opted to move forward with undrafted rookie P Ryan Allen, who remains the team’s punter to this day.
2014: Ryan Wendell, Dan Connolly, Josh Kline, and Jordan Devey over Logan Mankins
This was a rocky move, but it ultimately worked out. Mankins is an All Time Great at guard, but the Patriots traded him before the season and relied on a platoon of undrafted linemen to replace Mankins over the course of the season.
2015: Malcolm Butler over Darrelle Revis
The Patriots were never going to pick up Revis’ second-year option, but perhaps they would have been more interested in negotiating an extension if Butler hadn’t emerged as a high-caliber replacement over the course of his rookie 2014 season. Butler made the Pro Bowl in 2015 and was named Second Team All Pro in 2016.
2016: David Andrews over Bryan Stork
Stork was the center of the Patriots Super Bowl XLIX squad, but battled injuries in his sophomore season, opening the door for Andrews to see some time in the starting lineup in 2015. When the two were competing for a starting job in 2016, Andrews won easily and the Patriots moved on from Stork.
Jonathan Jones could be yet another example of the Patriots willingness to ignore draft pedigree and play the best talent on the field. Draft stock only goes so far- third and fourth rounders get a year of leeway under Belichick, second rounders get two years, and first rounders usually get three years- and at the end of that line, talent ultimately prevails.
Whichever one of the Joneses can keep up will join the starting unit.