When inspecting the list of most productive kickoff and punt returners in the NFL this season, you won’t have to look far to find Marcus Jones’ name. The New England Patriots rookie has been one of the best return men in the league through nine weeks.
A third-round draft pick by the Patriots earlier this year, Jones is currently ranked fourth in yards per punt return (13.4) and second on kickoffs (24.3) among qualifying players. In a year that has seen the New England offense struggle to sustain drive on a consistent basis, having Jones to help flip field position in the team’s favor is a massive plus.
How exactly has the youngster been able to accomplish that? According to veteran special teamer Matthew Slater, being a good return man all starts with the mindset.
“I would say the common thread that all of those guys have shared is they’re all daredevils,” Slater told reporters during a conference call on Monday. “They don’t have any fear. When gunners are bearing down — it’s usually the gunner as the first guy down there — full-speed, ready to take their heads off, they remain cool and calm under pressure. And he certainly has that.”
The team captain went on to compare the youngster to some of his former teammates, who have filled the return roles for the Patriots in years past. Jones has yet to reach the same level as those mentioned, but Slater does see some similarities in all of them.
“He has a great deal of confidence that the first guy down there is not going to tackle him. Usually, that’s the case,” he said. “But I think that’s a mental thing. Marcus has this, he’s just not afraid. Julian [Edelman], Wes [Welker] and Danny [Amendola], I would say, are all just flat-out crazy. Marcus is not as crazy as them, but they all didn’t have any fear.”
Jones joined the Patriots as the 85th overall selection in the 2022 draft, and his abilities as a returner on top of his upside at cornerback are a big reason why he came off the board this early. He was, after all, an elite return man during his time at Troy and Houston.
As a kickoff returner, Jones averaged 28.4 yards per runback in college and scored six touchdowns. He was equally impressive in the punt game, gaining 14.0 yards per return and finding the end zone three more times.
Despite recovery from shoulder surgery limiting him early on after he was drafted by the Patriots, Jones is picking up right where he left off when entered the pro level. Just ask Bill Belichick.
“He’s just gained more and more confidence and more and more experience as we’ve gone through training camp and through the regular season,” the Patriots’ head coach said. “His ball handling, his ball security, decision making, setting up blocks — he’s been doing that well in practice, been doing it well in other games, whether it’s kick returns, punt returns, the decision making, fair catch, not fair catch.
“Knowing how well we have the gunners blocked or don’t have them blocked at times in game situations. He’s just really gotten better every week.”
Belichick went on to praise Jones’ adaptability, going up against a left footed punter in Week 9. The Patriots prepared by adding lefty Michael Palardy to their practice squad, but the rookie returner still had to go out there and perform in a comparatively unfamiliar game setting.
Jones did just that, averaging 11.3 yards on three kickoff returns versus the Indianapolis Colts — including a 23-yarder in the second quarter that set up a Patriots field goal drive to go up 6-0.
“A hard-working kid. Each situation that we talk about, they come up in the game and he just continues to handle them better and better,” Belichick added.
“Same thing with kickoffs. How deep is it, how much hang time is it? A little different than punts with guys coming down. You have to make that decision on where the ball is laterally on the field. Where is the return? How much time do you have to get there? Do you want to touchback, bring it out? Those are big decisions and then, of course, there’s execution of the setting up the blocks and running. All those have gotten better.”