With mandatory minicamp underway, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2021.”
The team currently has 90 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in August and September and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots bounce back from what was a disappointing 7-9 season last year.
Today, the series continues with cornerback Jonathan Jones.
Name: Jonathan Jones
Jersey number: 31
Opening day age: 27
Size: 5-foot-9, 190 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2022 (2023 UFA)
What is his experience? Two years after pulling Malcolm Butler out of their hat, the Patriots found another diamond-in-the-rough among the group of rookie free agent defensive backs when they signed Jones. Despite not hearing his name called in the 2016 draft, the Auburn product has developed into a reliable contributor for the team over the last five seasons: seeing action as both a slot cornerback and on special teams, Jones appeared in a combined 87 regular season and playoff games since joining New England.
While he started his career primarily in the kicking game, he was increasingly used on the defensive side of the ball as well from 2017 on. In this dual role, he helped New England win two Super Bowls (and also would have played a big role in the 2017 title game had he not suffered a season-ending ankle injury three weeks earlier). His performance against the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl 53 stands out in particular: his play as a safety/cornerback hybrid in the team’s zone looks was a big reason for the its defensive dominance that day.
What did his 2020 season look like? Even though he showed some ups and downs over the course of the 2019 season, Jones was locked into the top slot cornerback role heading into his fifth year in the league. In this capacity, he once again saw plenty of action and in fact set a new career high in defensive playing time for the fifth season in a row: the former rookie free agent, who participated in all 16 of New England’s games, was on the field for 729 of a possible 1,017 snaps (71.7%).
His playing time share was a clear increase compared to the previous season when he was on the field for 61.2 percent of snaps. So, what happened? For one, the Patriots decided to take “sub is the new base” to new heights: New England had five or more defensive backs on the field on 94.9 percent of its defensive snaps in 2020. As the starting slot cornerback, Jones benefitted from this shift. At least in terms of opportunities, he also benefitted from Stephon Gilmore missing five games due to injury.
As a result of these developments, Jones finished second among all cornerbacks in terms of snaps (trailing only J.C. Jackson’s 851). He also looked good whenever on the field, moving in the right direction again after his inconsistent 2019 performance. In total, he saw 50 passes attempted into his coverage area. Of those, 28 were completed for 299 combined yards as well as 3 touchdowns. Jones, however, also registered a pair of interceptions and also broke up 4 of the throws coming his way.
In terms of passer rating, Jones improved quite a bit from 2019 to 2020. While he gave up a passer rating of 114.0 the previous season, he improved that number to 77.0. His coverage abilities were not the only thing that stood about about him, though. Jones also proved himself a versatile playmaker: he was moved all over the secondary, and finished with 71 tackles — 49 in the passing game and 22 versus the run. He furthermore forced a fumble and had three assisted tackles on special teams.
When it comes to the kicking game, Jones also was a steady contributor. Regularly appearing on three units, he was on the field for a combined 167 snaps in the game’s third phase (of 399; 41.9%). All in all, Jones was one of the Patriots’ better performers throughout the 2020 season. He successfully bounced back from his 2019 campaign and proved that he was still among the better slot cornerbacks in football — and worth the salary cap hit of $5.97 million he carried during the year.
What is his projected role? Jones has served as the Patriots’ top slot cornerback ever since 2017, and his role is not expected to change heading into his sixth season in the system. He should therefore once again see regular action in nickel and dime packages and be on the field for more than half of New England’s defensive snaps depending on the opponent and defensive alignments. On top of it all, the 27-year-old will also again be regularly featured in the kicking game.
What is his special teams value? While Jones’ special teams snaps decreased in each of his five years in the league — from 307 as a rookie to 162 last year — he brings plenty of experience to the table and has proven himself a valuable contributor in the game’s third phase. Jones has played on both punt teams during his career as well as the Patriots’ kickoff coverage units, and has also repeatedly served as a member of the field goal and extra point blocking groups. Even with his defensive playing time increasing each season, he continued to be given plenty of opportunities in the kicking game.
Does he have positional versatility? Apart from his ability to successfully play on defense and in the kicking game, Jones has also shown some solid versatility within both units. As a defensive back, he played mostly in the slot in 2020 (451 snaps), but also was moved to the box (109) and the perimeter positions (90). He even aligned as a deep safety (67) on a somewhat regular basis. Jones was also used a three-unit special teamer last year: he played on punt return, kickoff coverage and place kick blocking teams.
What is his salary cap situation? Jones enters the 2021 season carrying a salary cap hit of $7.37 million — sixth highest on the Patriots’ roster and 18th highest in the league at the cornerback position. He is due a salary of $4.3 million as well as a $2 million signing bonus proration and $1.1 million in additional bonuses. Based on this structure, New England could create $4.5 million in net cap space by either releasing or trading him.
What is his roster outlook? Jones looks like a relatively safe bet to make the 53-man roster this season: he has been prominently featured on both defense and special teams the last few years, has the positional versatility to play multiple roles, and is one of just two starting-level cornerbacks under contract beyond 2021 (the other being Jalen Mills). Unless Mills or one of the younger and cheaper players on the roster successfully challenges Jones for the slot role, him not being on the team come September would be a surprise even with his salary cap number among the highest on the team.