Earlier this offseason, defensive back Jonathan Jones shared a five-word tweet that raised some eyebrows within the context of the New England Patriots’ roster construction on that side of the ball. Claiming that “positionless football is the future,” Jones seemingly echoed what his team is trying to achieve.
The Patriots, after all, have several players on their defensive roster who are able to wear multiple hats. Jones, a former undrafted rookie who joined the team in 2016, is one of those players; not only is he the team’s starting slot cornerback, he also has experience lining up as a free safety or on the boundary.
Jones is a jack of all trades. Another player fitting of that description is Adrian Phillips.
Blurring the lines between safety and linebacker, Phillips is a prototype for the Patriots’ development as of late. Following Tuesday’s organized team activity, he spoke about the team’s defensive flexibility and his own experience within it.
“Starting off, you have to learn a position,” the 30-year-old said. “You have to see yourself in a certain role and get a grasp of a certain position to get the basis of the defense and the scheme. And once you get more comfortable in that, they’ll put more on your plate, and more on your plate.”
Phillips is no stranger to this process. Joining the Patriots as an unrestricted free agent in 2020, he primarily served as a “star” linebacker in his first year with the team. He spent the majority of his time aligned either in the box (63.4%) or on the defensive line (21.8%), and saw only a comparative handful of snaps as a slot defender (8.3%), deep safety (3.8%) or outside cornerback (2.7%).
In 2021, however, his usage started to change. While still predominately a linebacker/safety hybrid aligning in the box (44.8%), he received more opportunities in the slot (15.9%) and free safety positions (15.5%), while still regularly lining up on the D-line (17.8%) and even split out wide (6%).
Phillips, who signed a three-year contract extension with the Patriots in January, is a perfect example of a player capable of filling multiple roles at a high level. The team has acquired others as well recently.
Kyle Dugger, Jabrill Peppers, Jalen Mills, Joshuah Bledsoe and Myles Bryant all joined the New England defense within the last two years. What they all have in common is that they have experience in several positions across the secondary. Add players such as the aforementioned Jonathan Jones and Devin McCourty and you get a group of players that knows how to move around the formation and disguise its intentions.
“The more we can do as a defense as a whole, it just makes our whole scheme a lot better because you don’t know what I’ll be doing on a certain play,” Phillips said on Tuesday.
“You don’t know what Dev, or JJones, or any other guys will be doing on certain plays. Just being able to be that fluid and interchange stuff is great and that’s what we need to keep working toward.”
The Patriots face some questions in their secondary after seeing starting cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson depart within a few months of each other. With no clear-cut replacements in sight, maybe the “positionless football” that was mentioned by Jones on social media will indeed be part of the solution for New England.
The team certainly appears to have the players, and the mindset, to embark on this journey.