Lost in the chaos of the Patriots’ defensive drop-off, and a thick cloud covering the cornerback depth chart, is that they really missed Jonathan Jones.
But based on recent reports, the Patriots are set to get their No. 1 slot corner back at 100 percent with no delays. According to Mike Giardi of the NFL Network, Jones “has progressed nicely” since undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery, and he’s expected to be able to “train fully” in the off-season.
Additionally, Jones himself tweeted on March 1, “I’m back in that mode … savage season”. It was an even stronger indication that Jones’ health bar is full, and he’s ready to approach 2022 as normal.
Jones took the field for six games in 2021 before injuring his shoulder in a loss to the Dallas Cowboys. He was one of the Pats’ only defensive backs to keep a receiver in check that afternoon, holding Cedrick Wilson to four catches on seven targets for 42 yards and breaking up a pass attempt in the end zone. According to data compiled by Mark Daniels of the Providence Journal, Jones allowed only 52 percent of passes overall against him in coverage, and quarterbacks had a 71.1 passer rating when targeting him.
To fill the void left by Jones’ season-ending shoulder injury, the Patriots turned to Myles Bryant. Like Jones, Bryant originally joined the Patriots as an undrafted free agent when he signed in 2020. He’s started his first two NFL seasons on the Patriots’ practice squad, but in 2021 stepped up in the scramble to replace Jones’ snaps.
Bryant flashed with his quickness and versatility. In his first game with an elevated role, a 54-13 beatdown of the New York Jets, he logged six total tackles, one for a loss, and also made a sack and forced a fumble. He notably broke up a Josh Allen pass attempt on fourth down in the Patriots’ 14-10 road win over the Buffalo Bills.
Along with most of the Patriots defense, Bryant’s production waned after the team’s bye week. Most glaring was a Week 16 loss to the Bills, in which slot receiver Isaiah McKenzie caught 11 passes for 125 yards and a touchdown. Overall, quarterbacks posted a 96.9 passer rating against Bryant in coverage, a 25-point jump from Jones. According to Pro Football Focus, Allen was 3-of-3 for 40 yards and a touchdown against Bryant in the Bills’ 47-17 blowout win over the Patriots in the wild card round.
Bryant has shown enough to be a capable slot corner in a reserve role, who can tackle and make the occasional play on the ball. But he’s far from proving he can be a consistent primary inside cornerback at the NFL level. Jones, meanwhile, has been one of the better slot corners in the league since at least 2019, and his shoulder injury certainly didn’t affect his excellent speed.
The Patriots defense needs an infusion of speed and youth for 2022, as evidenced by the way their veteran unit declined late in the 2021 season. The slowdown is becoming a trend, three years running. But Jones has never been part of that problem. His return to the Patriots defense should actually be a solution.
Jones is entering the final year of a three-year extension and can make up to $5.6 million. If he proves back to full health and speed, the Patriots would be wise to create cap space by signing a short extension and converting salary into a signing bonus. That’s especially true considering the Patriots’ depth questions at cornerback entering the league year. Jones gives them much-needed stability.
Defending the slot is more important than ever in the NFL, and Jones has been one of the best in the league at it. For a Patriots defense that really could’ve used him when they struggled, his return should be a welcome one.
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Matt Dolloff is a writer and podcaster 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? Yell at him on Twitter @mattdolloff and follow him on Instagram @mattydsays. You can also email him at email@example.com.