When the New England Patriots opened their training camp in late July, the outside cornerback spots were manned by Jalen Mills and Terrance Mitchell. One month later, Mills is looking like the team’s new No. 1 cornerback. Mitchell, on the other hand, has been replaced in the starting lineup by a rather surprising teammate.
The spot opposite Mills has been filled by Jonathan Jones the last two weeks. Jones, of course, has spent the vast majority of his first six seasons in the NFL playing in the slot rather than on the perimeter of the defense.
Nonetheless, the Patriots have shown confidence in the 28-year-old and his ability to play outside. His performance this summer has proven them right.
The man himself, meanwhile, is not necessarily focused on where he is playing. Instead, he is operating with a mindset all too familiar in New England: he just wants to help the team win regardless of where he is used.
“I take pride in being available wherever they need me. I love moving around, getting the experience in different places,” Jones told reporters on Wednesday, following the Patriots’ first practice in Las Vegas. “I know I can help the team and I enjoy it. It just adds experience to my repertoire.”
Jones originally joined the Patriots as an undrafted free agent in 2016. Despite his lack of pedigree or hype coming out of Auburn, he made the team’s roster as a depth cornerback and special teamer his rookie year.
While used primarily in the kicking game early on, his defensive contributions increased as well through the years; Jones developed into one of the NFL’s better slot cornerbacks and became a fixture in the lineup. With the team adding Marcus Jones in the third round of this year’s draft, however, it is willing to move the veteran from his established spot to allow its best available players to be on the field simultaneously.
Based on the first few weeks of camp, the Mills-Jones-Jones combination might be just that. As a consequence, the proverbial old horse needs to be learning some new tricks.
“It keeps you on your toes,” Jones said about moving around in the lineup. “You don’t get stuck in the same routine, seeing the same things over and over. A different perspective on the game being on the outside versus the inside. ...
“It’s just more 1-on-1 on the outside. Inside, you’re in the run fits a little bit more. But other than that, you cover receivers. It’s the same game.”
Heading into 2022, Jones is in an interesting situation. With the rookie Jones now on the team, it appears New England has invested in a long-term solution in the slot. The elder Jones, meanwhile, faces an uncertain future heading into the final year of his contract.
But while it remains to be seen what happens beyond 2022, it looks like the Patriots have a big role in mind for him this year. Neither Jones nor his head coach will go into any detail about how said role will look like, though.
“We do that a lot in the secondary anyway, just guys lining up at different spots,” Bill Belichick said on Monday. “Sometimes we match receivers depending on where their receivers match up or our disguises and things like that.
“Jon’s a smart player. He’s really played every position in the secondary, like a number of our guys have. Good experience for him to work in different spots and we’ll see how that — I’m sure eventually we’ll use him and we’ll do that with some other guys too and somewhere along the line that will probably be beneficial for us.”
Jones echoed Belichick’s remarks when talking about his seemingly increased opportunities on the outside.
“I’ve been everywhere. Been inside, been outside,” he said. “During the season, we’re matchup-based. Primarily sometimes inside, [covering] most of the fast guys. But there’s a lot of speed in our division, so inside, outside — being able to play both helps.”
The Patriots will go mix-and-match in the secondary yet again. Having players such as the hyper-versatile Jones allows them to do that, even if it means moving him outside of his previously established comfort zones.
That said, it sounds like that challenge is just what he wants.