As the New England Patriots continue to savor their 54-13 victory over the New York Jets on Sunday, they received some disheartening news regarding the health and status of one of their most productive defenders.
As first reported by NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, Patriots slot corner Jonathan Jones will undergo season ending shoulder surgery; thus ending his 2021 campaign. Jones had been placed on injured reserve, prior to Sunday’s matchup with the Jets. He had missed the Patriots’ entire week of practice with the injury, which he suffered during New England’s Week Six game against the Dallas Cowboys.
Since joining the Patriots in 2016, Jones has emerged as New England’s top slot cornerback. In his sixth season with the team, the 28-year-old has seen action in 54 percent of New England’s defensive snaps over the first six weeks, compiling 20 tackles, one interception, and three pass defended. The veteran corner has proven to be effective in both nickel and dime packages and is able to adjust well when defending against numerous defensive alignments. He is at his best when used in the slot, though he is capable of moving to the box, or playing on the perimeter.
The Patriots will unquestionably miss Jones’ productivity on the field. J.C. Jackson and Jalen Mills are clearly New England’s primary options at the position. However, for a unit that is still reeling from the trade of former top cornerback Stephon Gilmore, losing Jones in the slot is a massive hit to the team’s depth. His absence will force the Patriots to once again put their patented ‘next man up’ mantra to the test; which at present, most notably includes defensive backs Myles Bryant and Joejuan Williams.
Bryant subbed in for Jones at slot corner on Sunday against the Jets. The hard-hitting defensive back compiled a forced fumble, a tackle for loss, and his first NFL sack, coming on a corner blitz. Despite some shaky spots in coverage, Bryant performed well enough for the Pats to consider having him continue to fill the role. Williams, New England’s 2019 second-round draft choice, has yet to emerge as a match with New England’s press coverage schemes. Despite being made a ‘healthy scratch’ following some dismal performances this season, Williams arguably had his most efficient performance of the season, registering three pass breakups. Still, the 23-year-old Vanderbilt product had some unsteady moments in coverage, leading one to question whether he can be a reliable depth solution for the remainder of the season.
Rookie Shaun Wade has potential, though he has missed the last two weeks while recovering from a concussion. During his time at Ohio State, Wade was a highly-touted prospect; even viewed as a potential first round pick, while playing out of the slot for the Buckeyes. In his final season with the Buckeyes, he was moved from the slot to outside cornerback. This, along with Wade playing much of the year with turf toe, caused his draft stock to plummet. At his best, Wade is aggressive at the catch point, while showing an ability to read his opponent. While it is a tall task to ask a rookie [one who has yet to take a regular-season NFL snap on defense] to step in for one of the most productive slot corners in the NFL, Jones’ injury may speed up the process for Wade’s development.
Outside of Bryant, Williams and Wade, the Pats options are far from abundant. Despite being officially listed as a corner on the team’s depth chart, Justin Bethel’s contributions to the team are primarily on special teams. D’Angelo Ross, Elijah Benton and Sean Davis remain options via the practice squad.
Last week, the team did work out three potential depth options in corners D.J. Hayden, De’Vante Bausby and Brian Poole. Perhaps the most notable of the three, Poole is at his best when playing out of the slot. At his best, Hayden can be a versatile defensive back, with experience both on the outside and in the slot. Bausby is also a versatile defender in the secondary, with an ability to contribute on special teams, where he has taken 170 career snaps.
In the coming days, one might expect that the Patriots will remain active in attempting to search for depth options in the defensive backfield. The NFL Trade Deadline is set for Tuesday, November 2 at 2:00pm ET. However, a blockbuster-type deal for a top-level corner (though not impossible) may be problematic. According to PatsCap’s Miguel Benzan, the Patriots currently have $4,006,089 in available salary cap space, meaning that a trade for a player with a significant salary is unlikely at best. As a result, the Pats will likely keep a sharp eye on available free agents, or may turn to one of the aforementioned defensive backs which they have hosted for workouts.
Whatever their choice, the Patriots will unarguably have a tough time trying to replicate both the versatility and the productivity of Jonathan Jones for the remainder of their 2021.