New England Patriots Draft Countdown: Making the Case for Byron JonesApril 9, 2015
New England Patriots cornerback Darius Butler could do nothing but sink his head as New York Jets wide receiver Braylon Edwards did the Dougie right in front of him, following a touchdown that led to a 7-7 tie in the first quarter. That was in Week 2 of 2010, and it's the last significant memory anyone has of a Connecticut product at cornerback in a Patriots uniform.
Butler was expected to come into his own in his second year, after showing signs of promise in his rookie season. When that didn't happen, the Patriots were quick to cut bait, and Butler was a free agent the following offseason.
If the Patriots select UConn cornerback Byron Jones in the first round, they would be hoping he doesn't follow in Butler's footsteps once he gets to the NFL. Fortunately for Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, it doesn't appear as though he would have to relive that nightmare.
Year after year, the Patriots sever the ties to veterans and locker room leaders alike. One year it's Logan Mankins, the next it's Vince Wilfork. This is a tradition that hardly spans just the past two seasons, though, and one reason the Patriots are able to carry on that tradition is because they are constantly looking for new, young leaders to step in and be the new voice.
The Patriots have drafted a lot of former team captains over the years. Last year, three of the nine picks were a team captain at their college (Bryan Stork, Jon Halapio and Zach Moore). The 2013 draft is the only one in the past five years where the Patriots have not taken a single captain. In that span, they've made 44 draft picks, and 18 (40.9 percent) were a captain in college.
NFL.com's Lance Zierlein lauds Jones as a "leader on the field and in the locker room," and adds that "scouts say he's willing to play hurt and inspires his teammates." Zierlein also quotes an NFC North scout as saying Jones is a "really nice young man who you cheer for."
The Patriots still have a strong leadership group in place with Devin McCourty and Rob Ninkovich as the defensive captains, but they'll need someone new to step in shortly. Jones may not be that guy this year, but that's for the best; you don't want rookies leading your team. Besides, if he sticks around long enough, his turn will surely come.
High character and leadership will only get you so far. At some point, your talent has to take over. Just ask Tim Tebow.
One thing you'll never have to worry about with Jones is a lack of athleticism. He packs more explosiveness than C-4, as he showed by setting a world record at the NFL Scouting Combine in the broad jump with a whopping 12'3" jump that measured eight inches longer than anything else the combine had ever seen.
That's just the beginning; he finished among the top five cornerbacks in every workout in which he participated at the combine.
Raw athleticism doesn't always translate to the football field, but in Jones' case, it's not hard to see. He has the leaping ability, recovery speed, acceleration and closing speed that would all appear evident from his measurables at the scouting combine.
Belichick will love getting his hands on a defensive back with a high ceiling thanks to immense physical skills.
The one thing Bill Belichick may love more than athleticism is intelligence.
No matter which scouting report you read on Jones, one word that is prevalent in all of them is "instincts." Jones is viewed as a smart player who reads and reacts quickly to routes and route combinations, knowing how and when to attack.
Those instincts helped him put up some scary numbers, according to Steve Palazzolo of Pro Football Focus:
With the Patriots poised to run more zone coverage than man coverage in 2015, they may need to enlist the services of another highly instinctive cornerback to complete the depth chart—although with so many already in the fold in Malcolm Butler, Alfonzo Dennard, Logan Ryan and Kyle Arrington, it may be hard to find room for all of them.
The only thing that's for sure in the Patriots secondary is that nothing's for sure—that goes for the short term and the long term. The Patriots could go a long way to providing some long-term answers with a highly instinctive player if they were to draft Jones.
Jones can do it all in coverage. But don't take my word for it. His highlights speak for themselves.
Not only does Jones show the athleticism to body up a receiver in man coverage (1:48 mark), but also the awareness and acceleration to break on the ball in zone (first clip) and even the long speed to cover downfield (2:03 mark).
A variety of coverage abilities are only the beginning of Jones' skills. The Patriots will love all of it, but they'll also love that he can line up all over the field, whether on the outside at corner, in the slot or deep as a free safety.
In fact, given his aforementioned instincts and route recognition, there's reason to believe he may be just as useful at free safety as at cornerback. That being said, the Patriots already have their free safety lined up in McCourty, so unless they think one of them can play strong safety, it's more likely we'll see Jones at cornerback if he suits up for the Patriots.
Belichick has a history of drafting players with early picks based on how much they can do, not necessarily how good they are at one particular thing. If that's the case in 2015, Jones is close to a lock to be the Patriots' first-round pick.