During his senior season at the University of Houston, cornerback Marcus Jones was viewed by many as the best punt returner in the country. Jones earned First‐Team All‐American Athletic Conference honors as a return specialist, while his four return touchdowns led the NCAA in 2021.
Jones’ work in the return game was a key part of him taking home the prestigious Paul Hornung Award during his senior season, which is given to the nation’s most versatile player.
When the Patriots selected Jones in the third-round of the 2022 NFL Draft, he seemed like an obvious fit for the punt returner job which was left vacant due to Gunner Olszewski’s departure.
However, the historic college returner did not see his first action in the return game until Week 4 as fellow cornerback Myles Bryant earned first crack at the opportunity. In his first game handling the return duties against the Packers, Jones showcased his electric talent by racking up 111 yards on four kick returns and another 49 yards on a pair of punt returns.
“He’s continued to work and getting better every week, and that's the biggest thing with our guys. It’s a week-by-week thing and you have to continue to get better and show improvements and continue to strive to get to that next level, being named the starter back there right now,” special teams coordinator Cam Achord told reporters on Tuesday.
“Just tracking the ball, running with the ball, making good decisions. We talk about it all the time, we got to possess the ball — have good ball security — and that's the number one thing for us is making sure when we come off the field, that we have control of the ball, so that's the number one priority for us. Then after that you want to have big return yards, big yards generated, explosive plays. So just the aspect of him improving the ball handling, the running with the football, the vision, the communication. You know there’s several things for the returner, its not just go out there and run. Communication has to go on, understanding the schemes.”
The early success from Jones in the return game is no surprise after his collegiate results. The question has been raised as to why Jones wasn't out there from the start, especially as Myles Bryant struggled with ball security at times early in the season.
Coming from the college game, there are major adjustments for NFL punt returners, specifically with the differences in ball trajectory. College punters often tend to kick more line drive-style punts, whereas NFL punts record higher hang times. That was just one of the challenges Jones had to adjust to in the early stages of his rookie career.
“I’d say that’s the number one adjustment for punt returns in particularly because you have a lot of the rollout punts in college,” Achord explained. “Or the rush and the protection, coverage is getting down there so much faster. In college it’s not just two guys releasing on the snap, people are playing the hold up routine — punters hold the ball longer in college than they do in the NFL. But the punts aren’t near as high and the trajectory and the end-over-end punts don’t move as much in the weather and the wind, so when you get the punts to spiral and there’s the elements and the movement, there’s a lot of development that needs to go into that for any guy back deep.”
As Jones has put the work in on the jugs machine and with punter Jake Bailey to adjust to the NFL kicking game, his next challenge could come via the New England elements.
“Each day is different in New England,” Achord said via Zoom. “Anytime you get a chance to go out and deal with the elements with the ball in the air, you want to make sure you’re doing that because it’s going to change on game day throughout the season. It’s only going to get more difficult to catch the ball here in New England as the year goes on because the weather is going to start changing.”
Jones’ value in the return game has been evident through just two weeks. Despite only logging three punt returns, he is one of four players in the league with two returns over 20-plus yards. His ability to flip the field, which almost helped New England pull off the upset victory over Green Bay in overtime, will be extremely valuable moving forward.
“He’s done a great job for us the last two weeks he's been back there, making good decisions, doing everything we ask,” Achord added. “And he's progressing through practice and you see that at practice working hard at it, continuing to work on the communication, ball handling, ball security, and just communication with the guys that are blocking for him.”