With the offseason workout program in the rear-view mirror, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2022.”
The team currently has 87 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 veteran cornerback Jonathan Jones.
Name: Jonathan Jones
Jersey number: 31
Opening day age: 28
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. Even though he did not hear his name called in the 2016 NFL Draft, Jones developed into a reliable player for the New England defense — one who is now set to enter his seventh season with the team. And 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.
Seeing action as both a slot cornerback and on special teams, Jones appeared in a combined 93 regular season and playoff games. 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), with his performance against the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII in particular standing out: a versatile safety/cornerback hybrid, he helped the Patriots’ zone-based defense dominate the day.
Jones’ impact in one of the biggest games of his career cannot be underestimated, but he has been a productive player throughout his time in the New England secondary. One of the league’s better slot defenders, he had his fair share of big plays: Jones registered seven total interceptions, forced five fumbles, and recovered two. And even though he may not be a household name, the Patriots recognized his importance to their defensive operation by signing him to a three-year, $21 million contract extension ahead of the 2019 season.
What did his 2021 season look like? Coming off arguably the best season of his career, Jones saw some potential competition for the starting slot cornerback role arrive during the 2021 free agency period: ex-Philadelphia Eagles DB Jalen Mills, who signed a three-year deal with the Patriots and had the positional flexibility and experience to challenge Jones’ standing. However, with Mills seeing most of his snaps on the outside, the incumbent slot defender was able to hold onto the job he played the previous four years as well.
As such, Jones saw regular action over the first six weeks of the season. Playing his usual role as a versatile defensive back and package-specific special teamer, he was on he field for a combined 292 snaps: Jones played 224 of a possible 415 snaps on defense (54%), plus an additional 68 in the kicking game (of 160; 42.5%). When he sustained a shoulder injury in Week 6 against the Dallas Cowboys that would require surgery and end his season, the Patriots therefore lost a valuable member of their secondary.
Up until that injury, Jones had been playing some solid but at times a bit inconsistent football. The numbers are a reflection of that. He did register an interception versus the Miami Dolphins on opening week and also was quite solid as a tackler in the passing and running games as well as on special teams — he missed just one of 21 takedown attempts (4.8%) — he also allowed opposing quarterbacks to go 22-for-34 (64.7%) when targeting him for a total of 275 yards and one touchdown; 121 of those yards came after the catch.
What is his projected role? Jones has served as a starter-level slot cornerback for the Patriots ever since 2017, and his role is not expected to change heading into his seventh season in the system. Even though he is coming off a season-ending injury, he should a) be fully recovered by training camp and b) again see regular action in nickel and dime packages (and consequently 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 28-year-old will also again be regularly featured in the kicking game.
Does he have positional versatility? Jones has showcased some solid versatility ever since arriving in New England in 2016. As a defensive back, a majority of his snaps have come from the slot in 2021 (144 snaps), but he also was split out wide (57) on occasion and moved into the box (14) or was used as a deep safety (9). Jones was furthermore part of three kicking game units last year, playing on punt return, kickoff coverage and place kick blocking teams.
What is his special teams value? With his defensive role expanding especially from 2019 on, Jones’ special teams opportunities started to decrease a bit. Nonetheless, he offers plenty of experience and has proven himself a valuable contributor in the game’s third phase. Heading into 2022, the expectation is that he will again be employed as part of the three units mentioned above: as front-line defender on kickoff coverage, vice player on punt returns and flanker or edge rusher on field goal/extra point blocking.
What is his salary cap situation? Entering the final season of the three-year deal he signed in 2019, Jones will carry a hefty salary cap number: his $7.7 million is currently the seventh highest on the team, and 18th highest among all NFL cornerbacks. The cap hit consists of a $5.4 million salary, $2.02 million signing bonus proration, and $282,353 in active roster bonuses considered likely to be earned (with $517,647 of the unlikely variety). The signing bonus payment is the only guarantee left in the deal.
How safe is his roster spot? Jones is in a fascinating situation heading into the 2022 season. His cap hit is significant, he is coming off season-ending injury, and the team added another slot cornerback — Marcus Jones — in the third round of the draft. Jones getting released to create gross cap savings of $5.68 million versus a $2.02 million dead money number would not be too big a surprise. However, the Patriots might actually have a different plan in mind and instead sign Jones to an extension to bring his cap hit down and keep him in the fold beyond 2022. With Devin McCourty potentially retiring next offseason, the team might just see him as a candidate to take over the starting free safety role from 2023 on. As can be seen, every option appears to be on the table.
One-sentence projection: The fully-recovered Jones will indeed sign a contract extension with the Patriots, but still continue to serve as their starting slot cornerback in 2022.