Four games into his fifth NFL season, former Auburn cornerback Jonathan Jones has gone from undrafted to a “critical” component of the New England secondary, causing Patriots coach Bill Belichick to call him “the ultimate college free agent.”
New England may need to call on Jones’ flexibility as a defensive back again on Sunday against the Denver Broncos because the Patriots will be without cornerback Stephon Gilmore, the 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Gilmore went on the reserve/COVID-19 list on Wednesday after a positive test — the third in a week for the Patriots, who also have quarterback Cam Newton and practice-squad defensive lineman Bill Murray on the list.
Jones made New England’s roster in 2016 because of his ability on special teams. As a rookie, he was on the field for 64 defensive snaps and 307 special-teams plays. The next season, his time with the defense jumped to 439 plays and has increased every year. In 2020, Jones has played 88 percent of the Patriots’ defensive snaps.
Along the way, Jones has shown he can handle more than outside-corner duties and taken on special assignments dialed up by Belichick. During New England’s most recent Super Bowl season, Jones shadowed Kansas City Chiefs speedster Tyreek Hill in the AFC Championship Game, then switched to safety against the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII.
“When we re-signed Jon last year, that was a big step for us,” Belichick said. “Jon does a tremendous job for us for our total football team — obviously defensively, but he started out as an impact player in the kicking game. He continues to be able to do that when we need him, and he’s continued to improve defensively where he kind of started as a perimeter corner, which is probably a little more of what he did at Auburn, to really becoming more of an inside player, although he’s shown the ability to play inside and outside. But his tackling, his aggressiveness, his speed really are very valuable qualities, as well as his intelligence and his versatility to play some safety roles, as well as corner-type roles, has been a huge asset to us defensively.
“To have a fast player inside is a big advantage. A lot of the players that play in the slot now are becoming more in the mold of — obviously, Tyreek Hill’s elite, but there are a lot of faster players that are now getting played in the slot, as opposed to maybe a few years back, a lot of players inside were, I’d say, more possession receivers, guys that worked more in the short to intermediate zones. When you get a guy like Hill in there that can take the top off of the defense from in the slot, that really changes your defense and it changes the passing game offensively dramatically, so to be able to not have to substitute but be able to play the same guy in there, and regardless of who they