New England Patriots

By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com

The Patriots have an opening at the punt returner spot. And the winner of the battle could come down to what else they can do.

After three preseason games and dozens of practices, the search for the Patriots’ next punt returner – for at least the first four weeks, if not beyond – appears to be down to two players. As you often find in a roster battle like this, they play two different positions.

Cornerback Cyrus Jones has the advantage in terms of pedigree and raw ability. The 2016 second-round pick had a harrowing rookie season. He looked to be turning a corner in the 2017 preseason, ripping off some eye-popping returns, before tearing his ACL and losing his entire sophomore year.

It appears that the Patriots wanted to get him in there as the punt returner as soon as they could. Jones was the primary returner in the Patriots’ third preseason game against the Carolina Panthers last Friday, including three kick returns. He also had a nice-looking return that came back due to a penalty.

Jones told Paul Perillo of Patriots.com that he’s just focused on being dependable, rather than going for the big plays that he became known for at Alabama.

“I felt pretty good out there with the reps that I got,” Jones said. “They were at the end of the game so they weren’t doing too much that was complicated. I just tried to play my technique, play consistent and do my job. I’m not going out there looking to do something spectacular. I’m just trying to put myself in the right position to make plays when they present themselves to me.”

Even without trying too hard to show off his game-breaking ability on punt returns, Jones may have already shown with just a few opportunities that he has the most to offer in that role. He’s most certainly eased a lot of concerns about ball security. But his issue, at the end of the day, could be versatility and reliability. If Jones doesn’t make the Patriots’ 53-man roster, it could have less to do with his return skills and more to do with his lack of contributions on defense.

It’s a different story for receiver Riley McCarron, who has consistently looked like the best option to fill out the bottom of the Patriots’ depth chart at the position. If they want to carry an extra WR while Julian Edelman is suspended for the first four games, McCarron still appears to be the one that would get the nod.

McCarron hasn’t jumped off the screen with his returns as much as Jones, let alone Cordarrelle Patterson. But at the same time, he’s been consistent in fielding them and, more importantly, avoiding disastrous mistakes. And it could ultimately mean more to the team that he can add value in a variety of ways.

It should help his case that one of the things he can do is catch the ball in the slot. For a receiver-starved Patriots team, McCarron has the best chance to be the long shot who sticks.

Though he’s had the occasional snap with Tom Brady under center, McCarron has mostly had Brian Hoyer delivering him the ball. But for him, and even the coaches, it’s more important that he can be consistent in his role regardless of who’s in the pocket. They can still evaluate him effectively just by getting him the reps, and McCarron can approach every play like he’s out there with the starters.

“It’s [about] going in there with a game mindset, no matter if it’s preseason or regular season or what,” McCarron told 985TheSportsHub.com. “At the end of the day, I’m just trying to go out there and execute my job.

“No matter who the quarterback is, it’s my job to go out there and do what I’m supposed to do, and get open and catch the ball.”

Patriots receivers coach Chad O’Shea echoed McCarron’s sentiments in his media availability on Tuesday. He’s been able to assure McCarron that, like Devin Lucien and Braxton Berrios, he needs to operate as if he’d be trusted as much as a starter. It’s the best way to have him ready, and for him to prove the team can rely on him in the first place.

“We’ve always stressed to the players, and we strongly believe it – every opportunity out there is the same. It really is,” said O’Shea. “I mean, we could talk about being with this group or the second group or third group. Regardless of [whether] it’s a post-practice period with guys that are at different levels of the roster, or if you’re in the huddle with Tom Brady, it’s all the same.

“We want to look at the film and see if you can be trusted, if you can be dependable, if you can be detailed, and that’s what we’re looking for.”

McCarron’s consistency and execution in the passing game could be what ultimately lands him a spot on the roster, and in turn, the punt return role for at least a month. Jones is likely ahead of him in pure returns, so there’s a chance that the team ultimately finds room for both. But Jones is definitely far behind the other cornerbacks in terms of defensive contributions. Cyrus’ hold on a spot is tenuous, as he competes with guys like slot corner/special teamer Jonathan Jones, veteran Jason McCourty, and rookies J.C. Jackson and Keion Crossen for openings.

Belichick liked what he saw out of Cyrus Jones last Friday. Mainly that he saw him on the field in the first place.

“He’s certainly making improvements on his way back and we’ll see where he gets to,” Belichick said Monday. “It was good to see him out there.”

The head coach also commented on his evaluation methods in the final week of the preseason, and how he weighs it against the summer as a whole. It could have relevance for both McCarron, who has steadily improved and gained more trust, and Cyrus Jones, who was limited in the first half of camp and has less game time to prove himself.

“The most important thing in evaluating players is their improvement,” said Belichick. “So, if a player’s improving, then you’re most likely to take the high water mark as opposed to where he was three weeks ago when you feel like he’s passed that and he’s shown that that wasn’t the player that he was. He’s taken the experience, the coaching, the reps that he’s had, and he’s become more efficient at those things, whatever the position is and so forth. So, when you see that improvement, then you start to weigh what happened most recently over mistakes that were made a month ago if you feel like those have been corrected and that we’ve moved past those. So, that’s the most important word for any player, young or old.

“But, especially players with less experience, if they’re improving, then you’re most likely to look at what they’ve done most recently. If they’re not improving, then you’re most likely to look at what they’ve done most recently, which is less than what it was before, and that’s usually not a good thing. It could be alright if it’s high enough. … We evaluate everything, but if there’s a rising trend, that carries a lot of weight. So, this is the last opportunity. If guys that have been improving the last couple weeks can add onto that, it will absolutely help them. It could help them a lot.”

Cyrus Jones is the rising trend. McCarron can be evaluated more on the whole of the preseason and training camp. Belichick is presented with two choices with their own complexities and some significant differences.

Punt returner remains one of the Patriots’ final unanswered questions on the roster. And it remains as complicated as any battle on the team. The performance of Jones and McCarron in their final auditions on Thursday, if and when they get out there, will go a long way toward determining who and what the team truly wants in that spot.

Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at matthew.dolloff@bbgi.com.