Patriots didn’t need to look far for a lockdown cornerback

Patriots defensive back #31 Jonathan Jones celebrates a 2nd quarter interception.04 Patriots 092522 Bb
Patriots defensive back #31 Jonathan Jones celebrates a 2nd quarter interception.04 Patriots 092522 Bb /

When J.C. Jackson chose to sign with the L.A. Chargers this past free agency, there was a lot of conversation regarding the future of the Patriots’ secondary. The team had already lost their other lockdown cornerback in Stephon Gilmore via trade mid-season and appeared to not have solid options to choose from moving forward.

It seemed Bill Belichick agreed with the consensus that the cornerbacks rostered may need some help, leading the GM to select two players of the position in the draft with back-to-back picks. Although they weren’t the most sought-after of the class, adding new and young talent to a vulnerable area of the team is never a bad decision.

Throughout the summer, it appeared Jalen Mills was going to be the guy this season and was treated as such in practices and preseason games. Despite what the naysayers had convinced themselves of the cornerback, Mills came into his own in the latter half of the 2021 season and displayed an impressive stretch of games when given the opportunity.

But through three games this season so far, Mills has struggled in coverage and hasn’t played similarly to his performance at the tail end of last year. Instead, a familiar yet under-the-radar teammate has stood out and seemingly taken over the CB1 spot fairly quickly.

Since returning from a shoulder injury that ended his season prematurely, Jonathan Jones has solidified himself as the lockdown cornerback the Patriots were looking for.

Now entering his seventh season in the league and New England, Jones has consistently been one of the most reliable pieces of the team’s secondary. Establishing himself as a top slot corner in the the NFL, Jones earned a three-year, $21 million contract extension in 2019 and looks to be worth every penny.

But because of the departures of Jackson and Gilmore, Belichick needed a productive outside corner, preferably one on the team already. It was made clear throughout the preseason that Jones would be moved to the outside this season, despite only spending 16% of his career snaps there.

Coach Belichick recently spoke about the switch, emphasizing the advantage a player has in viewing the game from multiple areas.

"“Jones’ got a lot of things going for him. Good skill set. He’s very fast, he’s tough, he’s strong for his size. He’s a smart player. I think, when you play one position and you move to another one, it gives you an advantage a little bit because you’ve played that spot and you know what’s going on in there.”"

The transition has looked flawless thus far, with Jones earning top marks and praise from those in and outside of the league, including receiving PFF‘s highest grades for all cornerbacks in two categories.

In the three games played so far, Jones has earned an 85.6 overall defensive grade from PFF, as well as a 90.4 coverage grade among all players qualified at the position. Considering his move to playing predominately outside just occurred this season, his performance is considered much more impressive.

Jones’ performance so far continues to fly under the radar. Whether that’s due to not being the flashiest of all players or his stat sheet not telling the complete story remains a mystery. But the competitor that he is has been shown every week and the impact he’s made in just the first few games of the season has been impactful.

Despite switching to the outside, Jones continues to cover some of the best and fastest receivers in the league. In the Patriots’ week one matchup against the Miami Dolphins, he was tested right away with a familiar foe in Tyreek Hill. Jones has matched up with the receiver in six games to date and has proven to be one of the very few cornerbacks in the league with the ability to limit him in one-on-one coverage.

In those six games, Jones has only allowed 11 catches on 20 targets for 143 yards. That success would continue this season as he limited Hill to just four catches on six targets for 50 yards. Knowing the explosive type of play that Hill can bring to an offense, his continued streak of successfully limiting one of the best receivers in the league remains noteworthy.

Jones wouldn’t see a pass come his way in the Patriots’ week two game with the Steelers, but did go against a handful of pass-catchers the following week against the Ravens. He would allow a big 35-yard catch by Rashod Bateman and limited the rest of those he covered to only two catches for 41 yards.

However, in his first return to Gillette Stadium since suffering an injury last year, Jones was a consistent problem for Lamar Jackson all game long. He intercepted a deep pass intended for Bateman mid-way through the second quarter, returning it for 15 yards. His play put the Patriots at Baltimore’s 32-yard line and led to the team’s first touchdown of the day.

He continued his impressive game by forcing a fumble out of Bateman’s hands, resulting in the recovery by Jabrill Peppers. The Patriots’ offensive drive didn’t end similarly to Jones’ first turnover, but his awareness was outstanding and provided more opportunities for the struggling offense to succeed.

In watching how the season has transpired through just three games so far, Jones is on the path to having the best year of his career. As he becomes a more prominent fixture on the Patriots’ defense, it’s clear Belichick has found yet another UDFA hidden gem to strengthen the team.

With a difficult schedule ahead and an offense continuing to work through struggles, the defense will need to be the more reliable part of the team. And Jones can certainly help lead the way to victory if he continues to perform the way he has so far this year.