Nicknamed "Clamp Clampington", Jones will bring versatility and swagger to the Patriots. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
The Patriots added nine new players to their roster this weekend via the NFL draft. Therefore, I'll be spending this week going over college film to get a closer look at the new Patriots and what they might add to the roster. I'm starting the series today with the team's highest draft pick, Alabama cornerback Cyrus Jones, specifically looking at his film this fall against LSU and Michigan State.
While Jones got knocked by some in the scouting community for a lack of size, his physicality was one of the traits that immediately stood out to me. Jones is short at 5'10", but he weighs in at a chiselled 197 pounds. With strength on his side, Jones brings an aggressive, hard-nosed demeanor to the field that showed up in multiple ways in the games I watched.
For starters, Jones is willing and able to shoot up aggressively and bring the thunder in run support. His run defense was lauded by scouts throughout the pre-draft process and likely stood out to a New England personnel department that has always valued strong tackling and run defense from its corners. This was a consistent aspect of his game throughout both films, but one play early in the LSU game highlighted it. With LSU in a "heavy" two TE, 1 FB, 1 RB set, Jones stays on the field but in the box as a strong safety would. LSU attempts an outside run with the fullback as the lead blocker, but Jones aggressively flies up to the edge and not only takes on his block, but uses his leverage to knock the bigger back on his ass. As a result, superstar running back Leonard Fournette is forced to cut the run back inside into the teeth of the loaded Alabama front seven and is held to a harmless gain of three.
That kind of physicality will greatly benefit the Patriots, particularly if projections of Jones becoming the team's primary nickel/slot corner come to fruition. A league-wide trend towards the nickel defense (one which the Patriots have been on the forefront of) would make Jones a de-facto starter in that scenario, and thus on the field on many running plays. Run defense from a slot corner is particularly important, as that corner is alligned closer to the tackle box and more likely to be involved in defending the run.
Another interesting theory is the possibility of a trend back towards running the ball in the NFL. As teams play more and more nickel defense, being able to run the ball against lighter defensive looks could very well be a logical offensive counter for teams. As ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss has noted, that could be a factor in the team's offseason trend towards bigger bodied defensive tackles, as such players can hold the line of scrimmage against the run even when the rest of the team's personnel is geared towards defending the pass.
Jones' physicality also shows up in his preference for press coverage. While he's well schooled in multiple techniques and coverages (more on that in a second), Jones is at his best when matched up one-on-one with a receiver and allowed to press them early in the route. When Jones gets a good initial press on his man, he becomes very difficult to uncover from, as he also has above average foot speed and quickness to stick with receivers throughout their routes. A good example of this comes at the 1:50 mark in the Michigan State game, as he uses his initial jam at the line of scrimmage to leverage his man towards the sideline, making him a complete non-factor on the play. Plays like that showed up consistently throughout his film and displayed why he earned the fantastic nickname "Clamp Clampington" in Tuscaloosa. The Patriots have trended recently towards tight man coverage with plenty of press technique, which should make Jones a nice overall scheme fit whether he plays in the slot or outside.
Yet another area of his game where physicality and aggressiveness shows up is as a blitzer. He spent the vast majority of his time in coverage, but shows up at the 1:15 mark of the LSU game with a quarterback hit after a perfectly timed corner blitz, beating eventual Steelers draft pick Jerald Hawkins off the edge with his speed. The Patriots do like to mix in the occasional blitz from the slot, where Jones could prove to be a weapon.
While his physicality stands out as a strength to his game, there were times on film that it worked against him. For example, he drew two pass interference penalties against LSU. The first, occuring at the 2:06 mark of that video, comes due to his failure to turn his head around and locate the ball, as he frantically runs into his man in an attempt to catch up after getting beat in man coverage. The second, which is at the 5:25 mark of the same video, was a bit of bad luck, as he does a good job of knocking the ball out of his man's hands in the end zone but makes his initial contact a split second too early. Both mistakes are the type that can be corrected with further coaching and technique work.
Unsurprisingly for a player coached by longtime Belichick ally Nick Saban, Jones is a well-rounded and intelligent player whose versatility certainly boosted his draft stock. I'll touch on his special teams ability in a bit, but Jones brings major scheme versatility to the field at his primary position of cornerback. Despite some scouts pigeon-holing him as a nickel corner due to his lack of height, Jones spent plenty of time defending on the outside for the Tide, and should be comfortable in either role in the pros. In fact, while he has the quickness to handle the slot, he has far more college experience on the outside, where he excelled at using his aforementioned physicality to steer receivers towards the sideline.
Jones also is well versed in playing multiple coverages. While he excels at press-man, he also played some off coverage and zone in the film I watched. When asked to play off coverage, he does a good job of ensuring his man can't get behind him, and his aggressiveness and sure tackling make him a well-equipped to prevent yards after the catch if his man stops his route short to take advantage of the cushion given. He comes lauded for his football intelligence and his experience in Saban's demanding program should help him pick up New England's complex schemes relatively quickly.
One play that stood out to me in off-coverage came at the 4:11 mark of the LSU game. On the play, Jones is isolated in man coverage against Travin Dural (who has a 4" height advantage in the matchup). LSU uses play action to try to set up a big play down the field, with Dural putting a double move on Jones. However, the heady Jones doesn't fall for it and stays deep, preventing the big play and setting up a sack. The Patriots consistently coach their defensive backs to always prevent the deep ball, even if it means surrendering some yardage underneath, and Jones' discipline on that play is a perfect example of how they often look to defend.
One of the primary skills that make Jones suited to play either man or zone are his ball skills, which stand out for an undersized corner. It's a strength to his game that his stats (5 interceptions and 20 passes broken up in two seasons as a starter) don't quite do justice too. One of his two interceptions from the past season shows up at the 3:11 mark of the Michigan State game, where he times his jump perfectly to high point the ball and come up with a takeaway in the red zone.
While there's plenty to like about Jones as a corner, the additional value he brings to a roster as a punt returner put him over the top as a prospect in the Patriots eyes. Don't take it from me, take it directly from Director of Player Personel Nick Caserio:
Yeah, there's a lot of different scenarios that we talk through at the time as we were working across, there were some different players who were graded equally. I think the thing that tipped the scales in Cyrus' favor a little bit was his overall versatility - punt return - that's a huge component of what we do and we thought he had the ability.
Jones was one of the top punt returners in the country last season, averaging 12.6 yards per return and taking four of them back to the house. That skill-set was on full display in both films I watched, as he consistently got the most out of his blocking in the opportunities he got. The film I watched included one of his four return touchdowns, which occurs at the 4:24 mark of the Michigan State game.
While Jones doesn't have the elite deep speed of some return specialists, he's certainly fast enough to gobble up yards in a hurry when given space. Furthermore, he has an aggressive decisive approach to his returns that results in positive yardage the vast majority of the time. He's capable of juking the occasional defender, but Jones typically looks to turn downfield in a hurry. The touchdown against Michigan State is a perfect example of that, as Jones takes advantage of the space afforded to him by immediately attacking up the field. Already in a full sprint by the time he angles his return towards the sideline, Jones is able to gain the edge and is already 32 yards down the field by the time he throws the first (and only) juke of the return, sidestepping the last remaining Spartan with a realistic chance of bringing him down.
Jones also shows a great knack of setting up and reading his blocking. The return that opens his film against LSU demonstrates that, as he shows great patience in pausing a split second to allow his teammate (Maurice Smith, #21) to throw a block before hitting the accelerator and cutting upfield. That turns what initially looks like a well-covered punt into a solid return and better than expected field position for the Tide.
Another quality that stood out on film was how comfortable and fearless he is at fielding punts. There were multiple times that he calmly fielded a punt despite a defender barreling down on him. That's not an easy skillset to develop, and it's one that he shares with both Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, both of whom have saved the Pats plenty of hidden yards in the past few years by fielding difficult punts rather than letting them go.
Speaking of Edelman and Amendola, relieving them of their punt return duties can only help their odds of staying on the field. Both of them have excelled in the return game, but both are very important to the offense as the only two receivers on the roster who have established chemistry with Tom Brady. Both players also are exposed to plenty of big hits on offense; relieving them of punt return duties would go a long way towards keeping them fresh for offensive duties. With the injury prone Edelman already 30 and Amendola likely entering his final season as a Patriot, Jones provides the team with a long-term solution to the punt return job.
It's often said that having a short memory is one of the most important qualities to find in a cornerback. With the amount teams throwing and the level of talent throughout the league at receiver, it's impossible for corners to avoid getting beat from time to time. It's how they respond to the occasional poor play that often makes a difference. Malcolm Butler is one such player who has earned praise for his mental makeup at the position, with his back-and-forth battles with superstars Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham Jr. last season serving as great examples.
That's why two sequences, both occuring under the spotlight of the Cotton Bowl against Michigan State with a National Championship berth on the line, stood out to me. While Jones had a couple of negative plays sprinkled throughout the game, he responded to them with two of the game's biggest plays.
The first such sequence came at the end of the first half, with Michigan State attempting to mount a drive in the two minute drill. At the 2:50 mark, his lack of size shows up, as Michigan State's Aaron Burbridge (a productive college player who was drafted by the 49ers this weekend) highpoints the ball and snags one over the top of his tight coverage. The play results in an 18 yard pickup and sets the Spartans up in the red zone, where a score before the half would cut into 'Bama's 10-0 lead.
On the very next play, Spartans quarterback Connor Cook goes after Jones again, taking a shot into the end zone to Burbridge. This time, Jones is ready and plays it perfectly, using his underneath coverage to bait Cook into the throw before timing his leap perfectly and making an acrobatic catch for the interception. The play takes at least three and possibly seven points off the board for Michigan State, preserving a double digit lead at half time. It's a huge play in, at the time, the biggest game of the season.
The second such sequence begins in the third quarter. At the 4:03 mark, Michigan State gets off a good punt and Jones' aggressiveness in fielding it results in a muffed punt. He's fortunate to fall on the ball, averting disaster, as a turnover there would give the Spartans excellent field position and a chance to get right back into what is at that point a 17-0 ball game.
How does he respond to such a mistake? He takes the very next punt he receives (about five minutes in game clock later, at the 4:24 mark of the video above) to the house, breaking open an insurmountable 24-0 lead. While he's the beneficiary of some poor pursuit angles on the play, you can't respond to a prior mistake better than that. It's a huge play that essentially sealed Alabama's berth in the National Championship game, which they, of course, went on to win.