The Patriots have never shied away from using versatile players in all three phases to help the team win games.
Whether it was Troy Brown or Julian Edelman occasionally flipping to defense, or goal line packages with former linebacker Mike Vrabel, New England has an old-school mentality when it comes to players being used in multiple roles.
Next in line for the do-it-all Patriots is third-round draft selection Marcus Jones, who has now made his presence felt on offense, defense, and, of course, special teams in his rookie season.
In college, Jones won the Paul Hornung Award as the nation's most versatile player in his final season at the University of Houston. After recovering from offseason surgery to both shoulders, the Pats three-phase weapon had a slower build-up because he was limited in the spring and summer but has now burst onto the scene as an impact playmaker.
Since Pro Football Reference began tracking snap counts in 2012, Jones is the only rookie and just the fifth player overall to play at least 240 defensive snaps, 140 special teams plays, and 13 offensive snaps in a season. Once he took over as the primary kick and punt returner in Week 4, the Pats rookie ranks second in yards per punt return (13.6) and fourth in yards per kickoff return (24.9). Plus, he became the first player this season to return a punt for a touchdown in his near-walk-off score to beat the Jets in Week 11.
Along with making an immediate impact as a returner, Jones scored the Patriots longest offensive touchdown of the season when he took a screen pass 48 yards to the house against the Bills in Week 13, showing off bursty open-field acceleration New England desperately needed.
Then, the final piece of his all-around skill set is playing outside cornerback against Raiders All-Pro wideout Davante Adams and others over the last few weeks. Jones is allowing a completion rate of just 50 percent into his coverage, with a 72.2 passer rating, one pass breakup, and an interception against the Cardinals last Monday night in Arizona.
For a Patriots team whose season is on the ropes following a crushing loss in Las Vegas, the 85th overall selection in the 2022 NFL Draft is a clear bright spot for the team. Now that he is a proven game-breaker at the pro level, the only question for the Patriots newest rising star is how much of a workload he can handle and how often they can get him the ball.
"As long as my body is good, which it is, then I'm good," the breakout rookie told Patriots.com. "Studying whatever I need to and just going over things. I know, I know it. But I'll still go over it to make sure. The redundancy over time helps out. Just coming in to help the team in any way I can. No matter what position or where I'm on the field, helping this organization get Ws."
"I'm sure there's a limit here. I don't think he's been overtaxed in any of those areas. We dealt with this before with other players that have really been more offensive players, like Troy Brown and [Julian] Edelman, who have also played defense. Of course, both those players returned kicks and were involved in the kicking game as well, so we've had some experience with this type of player, this type of thing before, but each case is a little bit different," head coach Bill Belichick added.
Jones's second-half breakout is not surprising to his teammates. In the spring and summer, he was already leading the first-year Patriots, while the Pats veterans also sensed that big things were ahead for the third-round pick.
"He helped me learn the defense because he's a really smart dude. In the summertime, watch film together, go back to the hotel, just watch like an hour of film together, just help each other with the playbook," fellow rookie special-teams standout Brandon Schooler said.
As for ten-time Pro Bowler Matthew Slater, the longtime team captain saw Jones's return ability was electric almost instantly.
"I remember watching him run and accelerate through a hole in training camp. I was like, well, that's a little bit different. You could see the potential there," Slater said. "He and I've had so many great conversations about the return game and what he sees back there and what he's thinking, and I think he's wise beyond his years in terms of how he sees the game."
Patriots quarterback Mac Jones has also enjoyed throwing the football to the rookie he described as a "Swiss Army knife" on New England's roster.
"He's a smart football player. He does a great job on defense. We obviously see that, and clearly on special teams. He's an all-around swiss-army knife type player. Working with him, he's done a good job and lines up in the right spot. He knows what to do, and he cares, and that's the biggest thing."
Although he's making highlights on offense and special teams, Jones made it clear that he sees himself as a defensive back.
"I'm a defensive back, for sure. I'm still a DB, but however I can help the team, I'm down for it."
The University of Houston product was near the top of the 2022 class in terms of pure coverage ability. However, Jones measured in at 5-foot-8 at the scouting combine, ranking in the first percentile among the shortest defensive backs since the league began making the data public. Still, the Cougars coaching staff would have him shadow the opponent's top receiver regardless of the height mismatch because Jones was just that good.
So far, in the NFL, Jones has stepped into a boundary corner role with injuries piling up for the Pats secondary. Ideally, he'll play in the slot long-term, but he's holding his own on the outside.
"Just controlling the controllables. I can't control my height but what I can control is my eyes, acceleration, deceleration, and things like that. Just making sure I know what to do and how to do it, getting out of my breaks. Just controlling what I can control," Jones told me.
One of his defensive highlights came last week when Jones was matched up against Raiders superstar Davante Adams. The Pats were in quarters or cover-four, leaving Jones one-on-one with the much taller Adams.
"It was quarters [coverage] on that play. He ran a nice route, lulled me to sleep, and ended up running it. I had to catch up, for sure. Just make sure I get there in time."
"It's one of those situations where you always want to be in the right position. But whenever you have to use speed, you definitely have to use it, especially as a DB. You are going to get out of phase, and you have to get back in phase," Jones said in the Patriots locker room on Wednesday.
Although he's a DB at heart, Jones is embracing his role on offense. Following a 48-yard touchdown against the Bills, Jones played eight snaps on offense in last Monday night's win over the Cardinals. By establishing Jones as a threat with an early 12-yard screen, the Pats built a package off Jones coming in motion to find some offense.
"I pick anybody on the offensive side's brain. I always ask what their mindset is and everything. I'm one of those people who don't ever feel like I know everything that is going on, so I like to ask those offensive guys whenever I can, what is your mindset on this? So I can get that and also put it in my toolbox."
On his touchdown versus the Bills, Jones gave credit to quarterback Mac Jones and wide receiver DeVante Parker on the play.
"Mac made a great read. He saw the nickel (slot corner) blitzing, so he made a great read. And then DP [DeVante Parker] ended up blocking the safety coming down, so I just tried to get vertical."
Jones can make a significant impact for this team on offense and defense. But his game-breaking ability as a returner might be his best quality for the Patriots moving forward, where he's learning the trade from legendary return man Troy Brown and even head coach Bill Belichick.
"He was just teaching me the main things of don't be back there being all relaxed. Read your keys, and wherever the ball comes down, you know how to read it. So get down there and beat the ball to the spot," Jones said of Belichick's hands-on approach.
Despite being squarely in the mix, the rookie wasn't named to the Pro Bowl as the AFC's return specialist. Initially, the nod went to Ravens speedster Devin Duvernay, one of three players to return a kickoff for a touchdown this season. However, Duvernay is on injured reserve, so 2021 first-team All-Pro returner Braxton Berrios was named as an alternate over Jones.
As far as snubs go, this was New England's biggest. The Pats primary return man has better numbers than Berrios and beat Berrios's team, the Jets, with a last-second punt return touchdown earlier this season. Fair or not, the Pro Bowl often emphasizes reputation and longevity, making it harder for rookies to get on the roster.
In true Belichickian fashion, Jones is not concerned with individual accolades, reacting to his Pro Bowl snub by saying, "I have no problem with it. I'm thankful for the fans that who voted for me. Devin [Duvernay] is a great returner as well. He's done it for a couple of years now. Braxton's had a solid two years as well. I understand it. Just control what I can control."
The Patriots recent hit-and-miss draft record has been a topic of discussion as the team attempts to rebuild in the post-Brady era. New England's last few drafts have been better, even if every pick hasn't been a hit, and Jones is trending toward a building block for the organization.