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How the Patriots replaced Jonathan Jones in Week 7 and what it means moving forward

Related: Jonathan Jones: ‘I’ll be back better than ever’ after season-ending shoulder surgery

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New York Jets v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The New England Patriots lost more than just their game against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 6; they also lost their starting slot cornerback for the season. Jonathan Jones left the contest early after injuring his shoulder, and he was later placed on injured reserve.

That move alone did not disqualify him from returning this season, but he later underwent surgery that officially put an end to his 2021 campaign. Jones vowed to return “better than ever” but that will not help the Patriots right now. Instead, they will have to replace him moving forward — a tall task for a team with some questionable cornerback depth.

So, how will New England proceed now that Jones is out for the year? Sunday’s game against the New York Jets might have given us an early indication.

Let’s look at the slot cornerback snaps as charted by Pro Football Focus. The following defensive backs all aligned in the slot at one point, with two clear front-runners emerging:

Patriots slot defenders: Week 7

Player Total snaps Slot snaps Targets Receptions Yards Touchdowns Interceptions Pass breakups Passer Rating
Player Total snaps Slot snaps Targets Receptions Yards Touchdowns Interceptions Pass breakups Passer Rating
Myles Bryant 56 31 2 2 19 0 0 0 106.3
Jalen Mills 56 24 7 5 41 1 0 0 125.6
Kyle Dugger 54 11 3 3 43 0 1 0 79.2
Adrian Phillips 53 4 2 2 20 0 0 0 108.3
Justin Bethel 10 3 1 1 4 0 0 0 83.3
Joejuan Williams 34 2 5 1 8 0 0 3 39.6
J.C. Jackson 52 1 9 4 37 0 1 0 16.7
Pro Football Focus

The Patriots did use multiple defensive backs in the slot in their first full game without Jonathan Jones, but the majority of snaps went to just two players: Myles Bryant and Jalen Mills. While the former played 31 snaps in the slot, the latter was moved inside on 24.

However, the abdominal injury suffered by starting safety Devin McCourty in the second quarter changed how New England used the two. With McCourty out, the Patriots opted to move Bryant into more of a free safety position; he ended the game with 22 snaps played in the spot usually filled by the long-time team captain. Mills, meanwhile, moved inside with Joejuan Williams taking over as the primary perimeter cornerback opposite J.C. Jackson.

With McCourty’s injury not expected to be of the long-term variety, the Patriots should have all available hands on deck in the secondary again sooner rather than later. Obviously that group does neither include Jonathan Jones nor Stephon Gilmore, who was traded to the Carolina Panthers.

The players listed above plus McCourty and rookie Shaun Wade (who missed the last three games with a concussion), however, should all factor into New England’s secondary mix moving forward. As far as the slot is concerned, however, it seems that the decision will be made between Bryant and Mills.

Neither of the two was perfect against the Jets, with Bryant seemingly out of position on a handful of plays and Mills giving up five catches on the day. However, they are the best options the Patriots have available at the moment.

There is a case to be made for both as the primary slot cornerback moving forward, but at lot will depend on the circumstances. Namely, on one big question the coaching staff will have to answer: Is Myles Bryant in the slot a better option as the third cornerback than Joejuan Williams on the outside? If so, the team will likely roll with a Mills-Bryant-Jackson group; if not, Williams-Mills-Jackson it might be.

Most likely, though, the matchups will dictate how New England uses its cornerbacks. J.C. Jackson will always be the number one corner on the outside, but Mills’ versatility in combination with the different skillsets provided by Bryant and Williams gives the Patriots options depending on who the team is going up against.

As for Bryant himself, the former practice squad member is just happy to get a chance.

“Any opportunity for me I’m grateful for it and the capacity of what it was and being able to step up means a lot,” he said after the game against the Jets. “It wasn’t the best game but there are some plays that I did make that helped the team, and some plays I have to clean up so this week. I am going to go out there and practice harder than I did last week, and hopefully keep this thing going.”