With Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson having left the team within five months of each other, the New England Patriots are headed toward a new era at the cornerback position. It is an era of uncertainty, but also one of promise.
The current depth chart, after all, consists of a mix of proven veterans and young up-and-comers. The first of those groups includes the likes of Jalen Mills, Jonathan Jones, Malcolm Butler and Terrence Mitchell. The latter features players such as Marcus Jones and Jack Jones, both of whom drafted by the Patriots earlier this year.
While Marcus, a third-round pick, was limited throughout the offseason coming off shoulder surgery, fourth-rounder Jack raised some eyebrows during organized team activities and especially mandatory minicamp.
Was he perfect? No. Was he competitive on the outside of the defense? Yes. Was this a continuation of his performance in college? You bet.
Let’s therefore dig into the film a bit to see what Jones can bring to the Patriots’ new-look cornerback group, and how comparisons with J.C. Jackson are not as far-fetched as one might think.
Before we begin, some background info. Jones, who was drafted 121st overall by the Patriots, entered the NFL off a college career that saw him spend time at USC, Moorpark College and Arizona State. There are questions about his off-field history — Jones served 45 days of house arrest for commercial burglary in 2018 and also received a team suspension for fighting in practice in 2020 — but his on-field talent cannot be denied either.
During his three years at ASU, he appeared in 25 games with nine starts. He recorded six interceptions and lead the Sun Devils in picks in both 2019 and 2021; he also notched 19 pass deflections. Despite measuring just 5-foot-11, 171 pounds at the Scouting Combine Jones proved himself an NFL-caliber defender in college.
His J.C. Jackson-esque abilities in deep ball coverage are one reason why. He showed an aggressive mentality getting his head around to make plays on the ball, squeezed receivers to the sideline, and finished through the hands on the occasions that he was beat downfield.
On this incompletion against Stanford, Jones aligns in a one-on-one look against the Z-receiver on the boundary. He initially opens to the door to the inside of the field, but does not flinch when his opponent moves toward the sideline.
Instead, Jones stays his course, reads the quarterback, and times his jump perfectly to break up the pass — all while going against a player significantly larger than him in 6-foot-3, 235-pound wideout Elijah Higgins.
Jones’ smooth hips, quick feet, burst, and route recognition often led to him beating receivers to the catch point or running patterns for them. When receivers did not get on his toes or challenge his leverage, Jones was able to stay under control and stick to them after getting his hands onto them.
Those very same skills also helped him recover even when he was out of position or trusting his eyes a bit too much.
This play versus BYU sees Jones find himself in no-man’s land defending the far-side deep zone in Arizona State’s Cover 3. However, he reads the trajectory of the ball well and flips his hips without losing any speed. He then comes flying in with a well-placed punch to break up what would have been a touchdown to 6-foot-2 Puka Nacua.
Jones showcased some good discipline and technique on that play, despite allowing Nacua to get open behind him. In general, giving up a lot of space on deep patterns was a problem at times for the young defender.
The issue, however, is a correctable one — as are others that pop up on his tape: he is a tick late trying to undercut outs and shorter patterns at times, and also comes in too hot and misses some tackles in space, leading to big plays. Sharpening his instincts through experience and toning town his aggressiveness will be important at the next level, where opponents are better suited to exploit those issues in their favor.
That said, Jones’ athleticism and aggressive style often made up for his lack of size. Combining this with his confidence, swagger, and effort as a tackler makes for a player with a quick downhill trigger who tries to make his presence felt when bringing down ballcarriers both in the passing game and against the run.
This mentality also showed up on the stat sheet: Jones forced a team-high three fumbles in 2021 on top of his three interceptions; he also was effective as a blitzer from the second level.
How the skills Jones showed in college will translate to the pro level remains to be seen, but his early performance in mandatory minicamp was certainly encouraging. And given the composition of the Patriots’ current outside cornerback depth chart — only Jalen Mills appears locked into a starting role — he will likely get a chance to compete for a prominent, and maybe even starter-level role in training camp.
For what it is worth, Jones fared well as a starter at both USC and Arizona State. Of course, the NFL is a step up in terms of competition. As can be seen, though, he does have an intriguing foundation to work with and possibly find success regardless of how New England plans to use him in 2022 and beyond.
And — Who knows? — maybe he eventually indeed helps fill the void created by J.C. Jackson’s free agency departure.