“It was more what we had,” Marinelli said.
In 2016, the Cowboys had Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick and Morris Claiborne as their top three cornerbacks. They had Barry Church at strong safety, but they didn’t have a free safety. When the Cowboys drafted Jones, they said his position flexibility was a big part of their evaluation, so he moved to safety.
It wasn’t as if Jones played poorly in starting every game at safety in 2016 and 2017. It’s just that he has been so good in his return to cornerback in 2018 that it makes folks wonder.
“He’s been a stud,” Marinelli said. “Everything we’ve asked him to do, wow.”
Through the first six weeks of the season, Pro Football Focus has Jones rated as the best cornerback in the NFL. That doesn’t mean Jones is the best cornerback in the NFL; the Cardinals' Patrick Peterson and Jaguars' Jalen Ramsey are generally at the top of the list. Peterson has 22 interceptions in his eight seasons. Ramsey has six in the first 38 games of his career.
Jones is looking for his first interception of the season and has two for his career.
“We need some,” Jones said.
Opposing offenses have not tested him much. Only the Houston Texans, with DeAndre Hopkins, regularly threw his way with any bit of success. In last Sunday's victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars, he broke up a season-high three passes. He leads the Cowboys with eight pass breakups. The coaches have credited him with 35 tackles.
“You worry about the stuff you can control, how hard you run to the ball, how much effort you give during the route,” Jones said. “If the ball comes my way, I’m going to try to make a play, no doubt. I’m trying to knock it out or try to get an interception. If they don’t come my way, I’m not going to get frustrated. Keep playing, do my deal. That’s how football works. Sometimes it doesn’t come your way.”
The Cowboys opted to move Jones back to cornerback in part because of what they lacked at the position. Scandrick was released in the offseason. Anthony Brown did not have a great 2017. Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis, their second-round and third-round picks in 2017, had solid moments as rookies, but not enough consistency.
But the biggest reason for the move was the hiring of passing-game coordinator Kris Richard, who was the Seattle Seahawks' defensive coordinator. He loves big cornerbacks (such as Richard Sherman). At 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, Jones has the size Richard wants.
“Perfect fit,” Marinelli said. “His body is perfect for that technique.”
Jones is using what he learned as a safety at cornerback. Because of the nature of the position, Jones had to take a bigger-picture view of the opposing offense. At corner, he needs to know only what his guy will do.
It lets him to cut back on the receiver’s route inventory, allowing him to play faster.
“You’re right in front of someone every play, especially the way we play,” Jones said. “Yeah, we may bail some of the time, but for the most part I’m man-to-man pretty much and competing against another really good receiver. I love that.”
As he has grown accustomed to playing corner again, he is beginning to understand the nuances.
“I think for me, it’s biomechanics of being a DB,” he said. “How am I coming out of my breaks? If I’m feeling the receiver put his hand on me, directing me where he really wants to go. Stuff like that. Am I picking up on that stuff? I think as I go against more receivers, I learn that if his hand is on my back, he wants to come back to the ball. Something small like that, you pick it up and carry it to the next receiver.”
As a rookie, Jones played outside corner, slot corner, dime back and some safety.
“I sucked,” he said.
“Mentally, I wasn’t where I needed to be,” Jones said. “It’s nice to actually become a corner at this time of my career where I understand the league, I understand how to take care of my body, watch film. Now I can put everything together in my fourth year.”
The timing can’t be better. The Cowboys have picked up the fifth-year option on Jones’ contract for 2019, but because he was a safety for the majority of his first three years, he will earn safety money: $6.29 million.
Of course, the Cowboys might want to lock him down to a long-term deal before that, which could more than double that figure in average salary per year, considering what a top-level cornerback is paid.
“I just want to be the best I can be,” Jones said.
“I’m still finding out,” Jones said. “Still scratching the surface. Just trying to get better every day.”