• Patriots cornerback Jonathan Jones is PFF’s highest-graded player at his position through three weeks.
• New England elected to move Jones from the slot to outside cornerback because his skill set most closely matched JC Jackson’s.
• Jones has had a high degree of success against Miami Dolphins wide receiver Tyreek Hill throughout his career.
Estimated Reading Time: 7 mins
FOXBORO, Mass. — The New England Patriots having PFF’s top-graded cornerback is not, in itself, shocking. The identity of that player and what role he’s manning is, however, pretty surprising.
The Patriots seemingly always have one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks. The outside, shutdown defender has long been a staple of head coach Bill Belichick’s defense. First, it was Ty Law and Asante Samuel, then Aqib Talib, Darrelle Revis, Malcolm Butler, Stephon Gilmore and JC Jackson all sifted through New England’s complex, multiple defense with the ability to cause problems for opposing quarterbacks by clamping down one side of the field or being a constant threat for a turnover. The Patriots won six Super Bowls and made three more with these such players elevating their defenses.
Jackson departed in free agency this offseason, and New England was left without an obvious successor for that role. But now Jonathan Jones — who for the first time in his six-year career is primarily playing outside rather than in the slot — is PFF’s top-graded cornerback.
“I’m watching their tape and they’ve always got a lockdown match corner over the years,” Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said before his team’s Week 2 matchup with New England. “In recent years, it’s been Gilmore, and then it was Jackson, and now it’s Jones.”
The Patriots were looking for an internal replacement for Jackson, and they felt Jones’ skill set was the most transferable, according to a source, who added that the 5-foot-10, 190-pound cornerback has impressive strength for his size.
Jones is not considerably shorter than Jackson, who’s listed at 6-foot-1 but measured in at 5-foot-10 at the NFL Scouting Combine. Jackson’s wingspan is three inches longer than Jones’, however.
Since going undrafted out of Auburn in 2016, Jones, 29, has been known as one of the NFL’s top slot cornerbacks, sporting a 78.5 overall career PFF grade and 78.5 grade in slot coverage. He signed a three-year, $21 million contract extension in 2019, making him one of the top-paid slot cornerbacks in the NFL. Through the first six years of his NFL career, Jones, who missed most of last season with a shoulder injury, played just under 16% of his snaps outside at cornerback with over 68% of his playing time coming in the slot and another 16% at safety or other assorted positions throughout the defense. He famously played safety in the Patriots’ Super Bowl 53 win over the Los Angeles Rams.
This season, through three games, he’s played over 84% of his snaps outside. His 85.6 overall defensive grade and 90.4 coverage grade rank first among qualified cornerbacks. He’s allowed just six catches on nine targets for 91 yards with an interception and two forced fumbles.
“It’s been fun,” Jones told PFF on Wednesday. “It’s been different. You enjoy it. I’ve done it here but not as much consistently. It’s just a different perspective of the game versus being inside, (and) kind of being more involved in the run game.”
He hasn’t had easy assignments through three games. Jones has been in man coverage on 44 out of 90 passing plays. The Patriots have only been in Cover 2 or quarters defense in 11 coverage snaps and Cover 0, Cover 1, Cover 3 or Cover 6 for their remaining 77 coverage snaps.
New England was in man coverage on 10 of Jones’ 29 coverage snaps Week 1 against the Miami Dolphins. Jones covered Dolphins wide receiver Tyreek Hill on all 10 of those dropbacks. He mirrored Hill on 19 of 29 total coverage snaps and handled Jaylen Waddle another five times. He let up just four catches on six targets for 50 yards to Hill, whom he’s always had relative success against.
“I think J Jones is a guy that, media-wise, people don’t talk about him, but I think if you go back and check out what he’s done every time he’s played defense, he’s played at a high level,” Patriots long-time safety and defensive captain Devin McCourty told PFF on Wednesday. “I think if you go back to 2019 and 2020, if you watch our gameplans against Tyreek Hill, our gameplan was putting J Jones on him. But I don’t think he ever got credit for that. So, now seeing him play outside week in and week out, people are like, ‘Oh man. Jonathan Jones is a pretty good corner.’”
Jones, who’s one of the NFL’s fastest active cornerbacks with a timed 4.33-second 40-yard dash, has played against Hill in six games now. He’s let up 11 catches on 20 targets for 143 yards with a pass breakup in those contests. Hill has not had a 100-yard game against the Patriots since 2018. They’re set to match up again next in January as now-AFC East foes.
In Week 2 of this season, the Patriots were in man coverage on 14 of 30 coverage snaps. Jones covered George Pickens on nine of those 14 snaps, Diontae Johnson four times and Chase Claypool once. He wasn’t targeted by quarterback Mitchell Trubisky.
And in Week 3 against the Ravens, the Patriots were in man coverage on 20 of Jones’ 31 coverage snaps. He handled a little bit of everyone from Rashod Bateman to Devin Duvernay and even Mark Andrews. Most of his zone snaps came against Bateman, however. He let up one 35-yard catch to Bateman and two catches on three targets for 41 yards overall.
After losing Jackson this offseason, the Patriots’ most dependable cornerbacks were mostly slot options. They signed Butler and fellow veteran outside cornerback Terrance Mitchell in free agency and selected corners Marcus Jones and Jack Jones in the draft, adding to a unit that already had Jalen Mills, Shaun Wade and Myles Bryant.
Butler was placed on injured reserve and subsequently released this summer, and Mitchell was released at cutdowns and signed to New England’s practice squad before getting poached by the Tennessee Titans earlier this month. Bryant and Marcus Jones are undersized slot cornerbacks, and Jack Jones hasn’t earned a full slate of snaps yet on the outside. That’s left Jonathan Jones and Mills as the outside cornerbacks and Bryant as the top slot option. Wade has yet to play on defense, and Marcus Jones has just four snaps so far.
“Really since I’ve been here the goal has always been to put the best guys out there,” McCourty said. “I would say this year, no Steph, no J Mac (Jason McCourty), no JC, what that looks like I think is just different. You’re seeing Myles, J Mills, J Jones and Jack playing more. I think that’s just been the key to the success here is ‘what’s our top 3? What’s our top 4? Let’s get those guys out there playing.’ And let’s get them playing where their strengths are. I would say J Jones fits more outside with Myles inside this year from a strength standpoint. So, that’s how it’s played out.”
Jones was told he’d primarily be playing outside toward the end of this summer.
“It’s something I’ve always worked at,” Jones said. “We got into training camp and it was something the coaches came to me and we talked about that moving forward that was going to be the plan.”
Belichick formally acknowledged the position switch last week.
“Jones’ got a lot of things going for him,” Belichick said. “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 position switch couldn’t have come at a better time for Jones, who’s on the last year of his contract extension. Outside cornerbacks make significantly better money than slot defenders, so if Jones can keep up this success all season, he could be rewarded with a hefty new paycheck.