Finishing the 2022 season with an 8-9 record and out of the playoffs, the New England Patriots have plenty of work to do to return to postseason contention. One big part of this process will be taking care of their own class of free agents.
Quite a few players are headed for the open market, with a total of 18 players left that were with New England last year in need of a new contract. Among them is cornerback Jonathan Jones, who is an unrestricted free agent and is scheduled to hit the open market on March 15.
Name: Jonathan Jones
Jersey number: 31
Opening day age: 29
Size: 5-foot-9, 190 pounds
Contract status: Unrestricted free agent
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. 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 and is now headed into free agency sporting a starter-level résumé.
Seeing action as a versatile cornerback and on special teams, Jones appeared in a combined 109 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: working as a safety/cornerback hybrid, he helped the Patriots’ zone-based defense dominate en route to a 13-3 win.
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, who moved to the outside during the 2022 campaign, he made his fair share of big plays: Jones registered 11 total interceptions, including one pick-six and forced eight fumbles while recovering two. He may not be a household name, but Jones has become a valuable member of the Patriots’ defense over the last seven years.
What did his 2022 season look like? Coming off a season-ending shoulder injury, Jones returned to a cornerback room that looked markedly different than it had the previous year. Gone were starting outside options Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson — the former was traded during the 2021 season, the latter left in free agency — with the team bringing in two mid-round draft picks in Marcus and Jack Jones to help replace them. Through all this movement, Jones himself received a new role as well.
After having spent virtually all of his career up until that point to the slot, the Patriots decided to move Jones to the perimeter in 2022. He ended up playing a majority of his defensive snaps — 778 of 914 (85.1%) — split out wide. In total, he was on the field for 80.9 percent of New England’s 1,130 defensive snaps and ended the season as the team’s No. 1 cornerback in terms of on-field opportunities. Despite missing the Week 6 game in Cleveland with an ankle injury, Jones was one of the team’s most dependable players.
Even though he had virtually no experience playing on the boundary, the Patriots trusted him to fill the role previously held by Pro Bowler J.C. Jackson. Jones was not the ballhawk that Jackson was, nor an all-around elite cornerback like Stephon Gilmore, but he did have plenty of good moments: he finished the season allowing a completion percentage of just 53.5 percent, tied Devin McCourty for the team lead with four interceptions, had a pick-six in Week 9 against the Indianapolis Colts, and forced three fumbles.
Jones did all that while regularly going up against some of the better wide receiver talent the NFL had to offer — from Tyreek Hill, to Justin Jefferson, to Stefon Diggs, to Ja’Marr Chase. Of course, players of this quality are bound to win their fair share of matchups and they did so on several occasions against Jones. In total, according to Pro Football Focus, he surrendered 543 yards and six touchdowns on the 46 receptions he gave up on the year; not necessarily concerning numbers but still reflective of Jones’ status.
He is a very good player who showed his durability, versatility and value to the New England defensive operation, but 2022 also illustrated that Jones is no true CB1. The Patriots were not hurt too much by that fact last season, due to a variety of factors working in Jones’ favor — from the pass-rush support, to the defensive play-calls and coverage setups. That said, both his positive traits and his shortcomings were on display more prominently than ever before. The result was an overall productive if sometimes inconsistent season.
Of course, Jones’ contributions to the 2022 Patriots extended beyond his defensive role. He also was a regular in the kicking game, seeing action on 116 of a possible 457 special teams snaps (25.4%). Playing on three units — kickoff coverage, punt return, and field goal/extra point blocking — Jones had one of the team’s biggest plays of the season in the game’s third phase: in that aforementioned game against the Colts, he registered a blocked punt. He also was credited with one special teams tackle on the year.
Free agency preview
What is his contract history? Jones originally joined the Patriots on a standard rookie free agent deal at a value of $1.63 million. He was tendered as a restricted free agent after expiration of that contract, and a few months later signed a three-year, $21 million extension through the 2022 season. All in all, Over the Cap estimates that he has earned roughly $26.4 million over the course of his career as a pro.
Which teams might be in the running? Even though Jones will turn 30 in September, he should have a healthy market simply due to his experience and the position he plays. There are several potential landing spots besides New England that would make sense, including the Arizona Cardinals, Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, Cincinnati Bengals, Detroit Lions, Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers, San Francisco 49ers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Why should he be expected back? While he is not a star player like others the team has had at the cornerback position in the past, Jones’ contributions have been valuable — and still can be. His versatility, leadership, and experience in the system all make him unique in the current CB room and a re-sign candidate at a position that is an under-the-radar need for New England. Additionally, he might be pegged as a potential replacement for safety Devin McCourty should he eventually retire either in 2023 or 2024.
Why should he be expected to leave? Jones has played his role admirably, but the Patriots might feel that retaining him into his age-30 season and beyond might not be in their best interest. After all, they brought in promising youngsters Marcus Jones and Jack Jones last year in the draft and might be adding more talent — with a superior upside — this year as well. With Jalen Mills also in the mix, the elder Jones might be seen as too big a luxury.
What is his projected free agency outcome? Two factors beyond his asking price will have an impact on Jones’ free agency: Jack Jones’ status after his late-season suspension in 2022, and Devin McCourty’s retirement decision. If both work out favorably from a team perspective — i.e. with both being back — New England might not have the desire to retain Jones outside of a highly team-friendly pact. These moving parts make for a difficult projection, but given the overall composition of the secondary and Jones’ ability to fill several spots retaining him on a three-year pact at around $25 million does not look like an entirely unrealistic outcome.
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