The offseason after losing a Super Bowl, where everything is broken and needs to be fixed yesterday, nothing is fine, every decision gets second-guessed, and the Patriots need to draft all the guys at every position. It’s almost enough to make one miss Dont’a Hightower Watch 2017™.
Speaking of which, High’s return should be a Red Bull on a Sunday morning to the defensive front-seven next season, so there’s that. That’s basically a given, what with Hightower’s nose for the football saving the Patriots in both of the last two Super Bowls he played in and the high-dive board the defense backflipped off of when Dont’a was lost for the season with a torn pectoral muscle. Even if that means giving Hightower the Gronk treatment in the preseason, hey, whatever keeps him on the field for January.
Let’s focus on the secondary now, though - you know, the crew that was charitably described as “bad at everything” for the first half of the season, the inspiration for a million dumpster fire GIFs, the guys that gave up 300+ passing yards in the first six games of the season and was on pace to be even worse than the worst Saints defense you can possibly imagine. The popular consensus among the mock draft nerds (love you guys!) seems to be to add another cornerback at Pick 31 and maybe even double-dip at corner in the first and second rounds.
That brings us to Cyrus Jones, who was drafted what seems like a decade ago and should be coming back from a torn ACL suffered in the 2017 preseason this year.
There’s no point in rehashing Jones’ nightmare 2016 campaign. What is worth revisiting, though, are a couple thoughts from the 2017 offseason and preseason that look just a bit different now that New England’s various defensive faceplants from 2017 are in the rearview mirror.
Let’s check in with Jerod Mayo from last spring, who, being the logical fellow that he is, reminded us on the Ex-Pats podcast that a three-time SEC champion and Cotton Bowl Defensive MVP usually does not just forget how to football:
“As much as the media has kind of battered this young kid, Bill’s going to boost him up this entire offseason,” Mayo said. “Bill — he’s the best at putting lowlights up after a game . . . But during the offseason, he kind of — it’s individualized coach. He knows this guy’s confidence is in the toilet. He’s going to boost him up as much as possible.”
Mayo added: “You know [Jones] can play football. He played in the SEC. He played on the top team on the country, and was a standout performer. So this is a confidence issue. This entire thing is a confidence issue, and I think they fix that.”
“I want people to remember a rookie [Matthew] Slater,” Mayo said. “A rookie Matt Slater was terrible. He would sit here on this podcast and tell you he’s terrible, and I think Cyrus Jones is more athletic than Matthew Slater. I think — I know for a fact, because I’ve seen it time and time again, the biggest leap not only in athleticsm but also in confidence is from year one to year two.”
And with the secondary looking more or less completely bamboozled for the first half of the 2017 season, missing assignments, playing zones wrong, not passing off receivers correctly, not covering some guys at all, looking like they’d never seen a bunch set before, and a “checks himself, still wrecks himself” knack for penalties at the worst possible times, this pretty blunt commentary from Bill Belichick when he was asked about Jones getting smoked in coverage against the Jacksonville Jaguars in the 2017 preseason seem oddly prophetic:
“I’d say there were a lot of problems on all of those plays,” New England coach Bill Belichick said. “Just obviously bad, so we need to do a lot better on that. We’ll just have to correct a lot of things there and see if we can move forward and get better. ...
”We don’t have any defenses where we want to give up plays like that. So yeah, there are a lot of things we did wrong and there are a lot of things we need to correct, need to be corrected, need to coach better, need to play better, need to do everything better -- certainly not one guy. There are a lot of things that weren’t very good on all of those plays.”
That last one, the whole “there are a lot of things that weren’t very good on all of those plays”...man, if that isn’t the secondary’s first two months of the season in a nutshell, I don’t know what is. And obviously, that’s with Malcolm Butler, the man who supposedly could’ve saved Tom Brady’s sixth Super Bowl (and for the record, I 100% believe he would have) on the field for...you already know...what ended up as 98% of the defensive snaps all season and postseason long.
If Bill was willing to give Jones some room to improve in the 2017 preseason, one would have to think that he’d give a second-round pick who’s essentially coming back for his second season another go to see if any of the teaching stuck.
Jones certainly isn’t going to singlehandedly replace Malcolm Butler (who had quite a few of his own consistency problems this year, let’s not forget), but it’d also be foolish to expect the team to just give up on a second-round pick who’s played 2⁄3 of a regular season (10 games in 2016) and a few preseason games before his ACL injury.
This is going to be an imperfect analogy (aren’t they all?), but let’s also keep in mind how Stephon Gilmore’s 2017 went.
To borrow a few stats from The Ringer’s Danny Kelly:
First 4 games of the season - 9 catches allowed on 13 targets for 151 yards, 1 touchdown allowed, 1 interception. Passer rating against: 101.8. That put Gilmore at the 74th-best corner in the league. Not a compliment.
Next 5 games (after missing weeks 6-8) - 18 catches for 164 yards, 1 touchdown allowed, 1 interception. Passer rating against: 67.7, good enough for 15th-best in the NFL in that timespan.
And nobody needs a reminder on Gilmore’s Dikembe Mutombo impression that iced the AFC championship on 4th and long.
It’s almost like spending more time in the system made him better.
Jones isn’t Gilmore, and he’s not Malcolm Butler, and we know that. What we don’t know right now is what a player that Bill thought highly enough of to draft at pick 60 in a draft where the Patriots had no first-round picks could do with another offseason of work and study.
With a cap hit of barely one million for the season coming up, it’s worth keeping Jones around to see if it finally clicks for him like Jerod Mayo thought it might before Cyrus blew out his knee this past summer.
And hey, if anything, he’s still more or less guaranteed to be better than at least one defensive back that’s currently taking up a roster spot for some reason.