With mandatory minicamp in the rear-view mirror, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2022.”
The team currently has 85 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in early 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 men fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots build on their 10-7 record.
Today, the series continues with rookie cornerback Marcus Jones.
Name: Marcus Jones
Position: Cornerback/Return specialist
Jersey number: TBD (Offseason No. 52)
Opening day age: 23
Size: 5-foot-8, 175 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2025 (2026 UFA)
What is his experience? A three-star recruit out of high school, Jones began his college career at Troy and made an immediate impact despite starting only 10 of his 24 games on the defensive side of the ball. Not only did he register four combined interceptions — including one that was returned for a touchdown —, he also established himself as an electric return man: Jones scored four kickoff returns between 2017 and 2018. Additionally, he even was on the receiving end of five pass attempts.
Jones moved on to Houston in 2019 but had to sit out his junior campaign due to the NCAA’s transfer rules. When he was allowed on the field the following year, he became a starter in the Cougars’ secondary and their primary kickoff and punt returner. Over the next two seasons, he started 17 of 20 games, registered six interceptions and a forced fumble, had five more return touchdowns — three punts, two kickoffs —, while catching 10 passes for 109 yards and another TD. He also was named first-team All-AAC twice.
What did his 2021 season look like? Coming off a promising 2020 season in Houston, Jones was able to make a significant jump during what was effectively his second year in the program. Not only did he continue to be an impact player on defense and special teams, he also saw some action on the offensive side of the ball as well. In total, Jones appeared in 13 of 14 contests — he skipped Houston’s bowl game versus Auburn with an eye on his pre-draft preparation — and registered 10 starts.
Whenever he took the field, Jones was a big play waiting to happen. On defense, he allowed opposing quarterbacks to go just 38-for-78 when targeting him for a completion rate of just 48.7 percent. While they were able to gain 591 yards on him and score three touchdowns, he was also able to intercept a career-high five passes and notch 12 additional pass breakups. Aligning primarily on the perimeter but also moving into the slot on occasion, Jones also forced a fumble and finished the season with 48 tackles.
On top of his defensive responsibilities, he continued to be an outstanding presence in the return game. Jones ran back 15 kickoffs, averaging 34 yards per return and scoring a pair of touchdowns. He was no worse as a punt returner, and gained an average of 14.4 yards on his 26 runbacks — all while scoring two more times. He added a fifth touchdown on offense, serving as a part-time wide receiver: Jones caught 10 passes for 109 yards and crossed the plane once versus Navy. On top of it all, he carried the ball two times for four total yards.
Jones’ impressive season earned him several accolades, including the Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player. He furthermore became just the ninth player in school history to be named a consensus All-American and was also voted to the first All-AAC Team for a second straight year. He additionally was honored as the conference’s Special Teams Player of the Year and tied an NCAA record: adding four more return touchdowns to bring his career total to nine, he tied Dante Pettis’ record set in 2017.
What is his projected role? The expectation is that Jones’ initial role in New England will be two-fold, possibly growing throughout his rookie year or heading into his sophomore campaign. On defense, he will likely serve as a rotational member of the team’s cornerback group and primarily be operating out of the slot in nickel, dime and quarter packages. Furthermore, the 23-year-old projects as a realistic candidate to serve as the team’s first option on both kickoff and punt returns; he could therefore make a notable impact even as a rookie.
Does he have positional versatility? Jones winning the Paul Hornung Award in 2021 tells you all you need to know: the youngster offers exceptional versatility and has made a positive impact on defense, special teams and offense during his college career. As far as the Patriots are concerned, they are expected to give him an opportunity to carve out a multi-faceted role on their team as well, starting with the two return gigs. Additionally, he might move in and out of the slot on defense. Either way, it will be fascinating to see how he will be employed by the club and how his usage evolves through the years.
What is his special teams value? If you are only starting to pay attention now: Jones is an elite return man both on kickoffs and punts. As a kickoff returner, he averaged 28.4 yards per runback during his college career and scored six touchdowns. He was equally impressive in the punt return game, with his return average on punts standing at 14.0 yards and him finding the end zone three separate times as well. Jones will get an opportunity to prove himself in the return game from Day 1.
What is his salary cap situation? Jones signed a standard four-year rookie contract with the Patriots shortly after his arrival through the draft. As part of the $5.18 million deal, he will be on the team’s books with a salary cap number of $941,264 this season. At the moment, however, only his fully-guaranteed $236,264 signing bonus proration is counted under the NFL’s Top-51 rule. His non-guaranteed salary of $705,000, meanwhile, will only be added to the mix if he is on the team during the regular season.
How safe is his roster spot? As a third-round draft investment, Jones’ spot on the Patriots’ roster is as safe as can be. However, the question is how soon he will see the field after undergoing surgery on both his shoulders since December. He was unable to participate in any pre-draft activities due to his recovery, and also wore a red non-contact jersey throughout New England’s mandatory minicamp. Jones opening training camp and maybe even the season on the non-football injury list is a possibility, even though there is some optimism about his recovery process.
One-sentence projection: Jones will take over as New England’s starting slot cornerback at one point, but will play more of a rotational role with a focus on the return game as a rookie in 2022.