New England Patriots

Jan 3, 2021; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots defensive back Jonathan Jones (31) celebrates with cornerback J.C. Jackson (27) after catching an interception against the New York Jets during the forth quarter at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

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.

Oct 17, 2021; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots defensive back Jonathan Jones (31) breaks up a pass intended for Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Ced Wilson (1) during the first half at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 17, 2021; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots defensive back Jonathan Jones (31) breaks up a pass intended for Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Ced Wilson (1) during the first half at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

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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7 free-agent slot receivers to bolster the Patriots offense in 2022

  • A free-agent slot receiver may not necessarily be the game-breaking kind of talent that Ja’Marr Chase or the top free-agent receivers are, but it should definitely improve the roster at a specific area of need and make life easier for Mac Jones in his second year. Here are seven free-agent slot receivers who could boost the Patriots’ offense in the 2022 season.

    JuJu Smith-Schuster

    Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster #19 of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs with the ball against the Las Vegas Raiders in the first half of the game at Heinz Field on September 19, 2021 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

    Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster #19 of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs with the ball against the Las Vegas Raiders in the first half of the game at Heinz Field on September 19, 2021 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

    At 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, Smith-Schuster is closer to the same size as Meyers and Bourne than that of Gunner Olszewski. But he is certainly at his best playing inside. He lined up in the slot on 78.8 percent of his offensive snaps in 2021.

    Smith-Schuster played only five games before a shoulder injury and the resulting surgery cut his regular season short. But he did return for the Steelers in the wild card round and made five catches for 26 yards, so in theory, he’s healthy as he heads toward unrestricted free agency. The fact that it was a shoulder injury should mean that his quickness is intact.

    We’ll see if his clean bill of health can help him get more than a one-year deal, but Smith-Schuster is likely to see less on the open market than his more productive counterparts at the top of the heap. Still, he’s two years removed from a 97-catch season and would give Jones a fearless, dynamic target over the middle of the field.

  • Christian Kirk

    Christian Kirk #13 of the Arizona Cardinals catches the ball over Jourdan Lewis #26 of the Dallas Cowboys during the third quarter at AT&T Stadium on January 02, 2022 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)

    Christian Kirk #13 of the Arizona Cardinals catches the ball over Jourdan Lewis #26 of the Dallas Cowboys during the third quarter at AT&T Stadium on January 02, 2022 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)

    Kirk is younger and faster than Smith-Schuster, and would bring a big-play element to the slot receiver spot. He scored touchdowns of 80 and 56 yards in his third season in 2020, and added five more scores in 2021, three of which came from more than 20 yards out.

    In an impressive leap forward, Kirk led the Cardinals in catches (77) and targets (103) while lining up in the slot 80.2 percent of the time. He’s also efficient; his 74.8 percent catch rate was seventh among all receivers.

    At 25 years old coming off a career year, Kirk will probably command a long-term deal for at least mid-market value. But he seems like the exact type of player the Patriots could install in the slot full-time.

  • Isaiah McKenzie

    Isaiah McKenzie #19 of the Buffalo Bills runs out of bounds after catching a pass against Joejuan Williams #33 of the New England Patriots during the first quarter in the AFC Wild Card playoff game at Highmark Stadium on January 15, 2022 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images)

    Isaiah McKenzie #19 of the Buffalo Bills runs out of bounds after catching a pass against Joejuan Williams #33 of the New England Patriots during the first quarter in the AFC Wild Card playoff game at Highmark Stadium on January 15, 2022 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images)

    Also known as The Patriot Killer! In reality, it was just one big game for McKenzie against the Pats. But in a Week 16 game with first place in the AFC East on the line and the Patriots focusing on slowing down Stefon Diggs, McKenzie exploded for 11 catches, 125 yards, and a touchdown. That stung.

    McKenzie is relatively small, but he’s also young, fast, and inexpensive. He should be able to get a multi-year deal somewhere, but won’t break the bank. Most importantly, he’d be a good fit for the Patriots and diminish the depth chart of their chief rival in the division.

    Belichick hasn’t been shy about bringing in players who played well against the Patriots in the past. McKenzie would make sense, and come relatively cheaply as a guy with a low volume of production so far in his career.

  • Braxton Berrios

    Braxton Berrios #10 of the New York Jets runs with the ball for a touchdown against the Miami Dolphins in the first quarter at Hard Rock Stadium on December 19, 2021 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images)

    Braxton Berrios #10 of the New York Jets runs with the ball for a touchdown against the Miami Dolphins in the first quarter at Hard Rock Stadium on December 19, 2021 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images)

    Sound familiar? Berrios began his career with the Patriots as a sixth-round pick out of Miami. But he spent his rookie season on injured reserve before being waived in 2019.

    Berrios ended up with the Jets, and surprisingly enough, has developed into a decent slot receiver. His catches have gone up in each of the last three seasons, with a career-best 46 in 2021. He was also a First Team All-Pro kick returner, leading the league with 30.4 yards per return and delivering the longest kick return touchdown of the season at 102 yards.

    One would think there are no hard feelings between Berrios and the Patriots. He’d make for a promising addition to the slot receiver depth chart, and the relative familiarity with New England is a plus.

  • Odell Beckham Jr.

    Odell Beckham Jr. #3 of the Los Angeles Rams runs with the ball during Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium on February 13, 2022 in Inglewood, California. The Los Angeles Rams defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 23-20. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

    Odell Beckham Jr. #3 of the Los Angeles Rams runs with the ball during Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium on February 13, 2022 in Inglewood, California. The Los Angeles Rams defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 23-20. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

    OBJ will definitely come cheaply, because he may not even be able to practice until around September. The former Giants, Browns, and Rams wideout tore his ACL as he made a catch in Super Bowl LVI, which was unfortunate for obvious reasons, but doubly so because it felt like he was on his way to a big game.

    Beckham turns 30 years old in November and will now be on (likely) his fourth team in nine seasons. Off-field drama has tended to follow him around. But Beckham also acknowledged that there was once mutual interest between him and the Patriots during his brief time as a free agent during the 2021 season.

    Well, his price tag will never be lower than it is now. If Beckham can prove he’s close to the same player he’s been in his career – which is a legitimate question mark after a second ACL injury – he’ll be good bang for the buck, and give Jones a potential game-breaker over the middle.

  • Cedrick Wilson

    Cedrick Wilson #1 of the Dallas Cowboys carries the ball after a reception against the San Francisco 49ers during the second quarter in the NFC Wild Card Playoff game at AT&T Stadium on January 16, 2022 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)

    Cedrick Wilson #1 of the Dallas Cowboys carries the ball after a reception against the San Francisco 49ers during the second quarter in the NFC Wild Card Playoff game at AT&T Stadium on January 16, 2022 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)

    Wilson lined up in the slot 82.7 percent of the time, the highest rate on the Cowboys. That’s notable, because Dallas lined up three other pass-catchers inside for at least 359 plays.

    The 26-year-old Wilson came up with 45 catches, 602 yards, and six touchdowns for the league’s most productive offense. That’s impressive, considering he had the sixth-most targets on the team.

    Belichick may view the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Wilson as more of a hybrid receiver, which might make him a redundancy with Meyers and Bourne. But he’s a proven producer in the slot and would inject the depth chart with youth and perhaps some untapped potential.

  • Jamison Crowder

    Jamison Crowder #82 of the New York Jets avoids the tackle of Kevin Johnson #28 of the Cleveland Browns in the third quarter at MetLife Stadium on December 27, 2020 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

    Jamison Crowder #82 of the New York Jets avoids the tackle of Kevin Johnson #28 of the Cleveland Browns in the third quarter at MetLife Stadium on December 27, 2020 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

    Crowder is a familiar name to Patriots fans at this point, as a three-year veteran of the Jets. The 28-year-old wouldn’t transform the offense overnight, but he’s proven to be a steady and dependable slot receiver for most of his career.

    Despite the presence of Berrios and dynamic rookie Elijah Moore, Crowder lined up in the slot more often than any Jets receiver in 2021. He also managed to lead the team in catches with 51, despite working with a rookie quarterback and a defensive head coach.

    Crowder could step right in and start in the slot in three-receiver sets, but signing him may only be worth it if a spot opens up on the roster. The Patriots would be better suited aiming a little higher, but Crowder would be a solid fallback plan.

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5 free agents to improve the Patriots' defense for 2022

  • With work to do on the defensive side of the ball, here are five established free agents for the Patriots to target for immediate improvement in 2022.

  • Rasul Douglas, CB

    GREEN BAY, WISCONSIN – NOVEMBER 28: Rasul Douglas #29 of the Green Bay Packers returns an interception for a touchdown during the third quarter against the Los Angeles Rams at Lambeau Field on November 28, 2021 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

    In his fifth season in the NFL, Douglas broke out. With Green Bay’s top corner Jaire Alexander playing just four games, Douglas stepped up to make plays in the secondary. He defended 13 passes with five interceptions and made two pick-sixes, which were most in the league.

    Douglas will have multiple suitors after his 2021 campaign. New England will have to rely on Green Bay’s inability to work him into an already difficult cap space situation and outbid other teams.

  • Harold Landry, LB

    NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE – SEPTEMBER 26: Harold Landry III #58 of the Tennessee Titans celebrates sacking quarterback Carson Wentz #2 of the Indianapolis Colts in the third quarter of the game at Nissan Stadium on September 26, 2021 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Silas Walker/Getty Images)

    Landry is no stranger to playing strong defense in this region, as an alum of Boston College. Landry is dynamic on the edge and continues to improve his game. In 2021, Landry made his first Pro Bowl with Tennessee with a career-high 75 tackles and 12.0 sacks.

    While New England’s need at linebacker focuses more on the inside, Landry would be dominant on the edge opposite a refreshed Matthew Judon, to pressure and contain opposing offenses.

  • Desmond King, CB

    GREEN BAY, WISCONSIN – AUGUST 14: Desmond King #25 of the Houston Texans avoids the tackle of De’Jon Harris #46 of the Green Bay Packers in the first half during the preseason game at Lambeau Field on August 14, 2021 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

    King offers an ideal fit for New England’s needs. Pro Football Focus ranked King as the sixth-best slot corner in the NFL entering 2021, and he continued to make plays in that role with Houston. King defended six passes with three interceptions and a forced fumble.

    With Jonathan Jones only under contract through next season, New England could use long-term insurance for slot coverage through a capable player like King.

  • De’Vondre Campbell, LB

    GREEN BAY, WISCONSIN – NOVEMBER 14: Russell Wilson #3 of the Seattle Seahawks is tackled by De’Vondre Campbell #59 of the Green Bay Packers during the fourth quarter at Lambeau Field on November 14, 2021 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

    As another potential target from Green Bay, Campbell offers an intriguing mix of size and speed. The 6-foot-3 linebacker tied for sixth in the NFL with 111 tackles, while forcing two fumbles with two interceptions.

    With stability needed in the linebacking core, Campbell would be a player entering his prime to tighten the interior of the New England defense.

  • Charvarius Ward, CB

    Charvarius Ward #35 of the Kansas City Chiefs and Nick Bolton #54 of the Kansas City Chiefs tackle Ezekiel Elliott #21 of the Dallas Cowboys during the first quarter at Arrowhead Stadium on November 21, 2021 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images)

    Charvarius Ward #35 of the Kansas City Chiefs and Nick Bolton #54 of the Kansas City Chiefs tackle Ezekiel Elliott #21 of the Dallas Cowboys during the first quarter at Arrowhead Stadium on November 21, 2021 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images)

    At age 26, Ward offers productivity and playoff experience with Kansas City. The Super Bowl LIV champion matched his career highs in 2021 with two interceptions and 10 passes defended. Ward would likely fill the slot in New England.

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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 mdolloff@985thesportshub.com.