Patriots rookie Jack Jones has emerged as contender to fill top cornerback role

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:

1. Jones for Jackson? One of the Patriots' top questions entering training camp is who will replace J.C. Jackson as a starting cornerback, and fourth-round pick Jack Jones has quickly put himself in position to challenge for the role.

This likely doesn’t surprise longtime scout and front-office executive TJ McCreight, who tweeted that Jones was his favorite pick of the fourth round. In addition to Jones’ physical traits and high-end instincts, McCreight highlighted how Jones was coached by Herm Edwards (a former DB himself), Marvin Lewis and Donnie Henderson at Arizona State, so he’s already benefitted from NFL-level tutelage.

Coach Bill Belichick also noted how Jones has “played in a pro system and had a lot of pro coaching.”

Meanwhile, Edwards shared his belief that Jones has landed with the right team. Jones began his college career at USC, was arrested for breaking into a restaurant in 2018, and a plea agreement reduced the initial felony charges to a second-degree misdemeanor charge of commercial burglary. After Jones was dismissed from USC due to academic issues, he transferred to Moorpark, a junior college. He ultimately landed at Arizona State, where in 2020, he was also suspended for fighting during practice.

“It’s a good spot for him [New England], as there will be people there to keep the thumb on him," Edwards said in an interview with ESPN.com, noting that Belichick worked him out privately on campus before the draft. "I told him, ‘You’re at a place now where you have to check all the boxes.’ He’s been a handful, but he’s a good kid. Loves football. Loves competing. Once he’s in the building, on the field, he’s all about football now.”

Edwards sees potential for positive results if Jones stays on track and manages his time well, and Patriots spring practices seemed to be a preview of that.

Jones played opposite 2021 starter Jalen Mills in one mandatory minicamp practice, and consistently had tight coverage against starting-caliber receivers. He also intercepted rookie quarterback Bailey Zappe, exploding out of his break to jump in front of a comeback route.

“That’s a position where you have to react, always trying to close the cushion. He has the ability to do that. He can make up time coming out of his pedal and turns,” Edwards said.

Jones is competing with veterans Mills, Malcolm Butler and Terrance Mitchell on the outside. Veteran Jonathan Jones is the top slot corner, with rookie Marcus Jones (third round, Houston) potentially working behind him.

Edwards wouldn’t be surprised if Jones ultimately emerges, but also seemed cautious to overhype his impact.

“He’s a very explosive athlete. Very competitive. He has pretty good ball skills, finding and turning and locating the ball,” he said.

“He has good anticipation. Sometimes his eyes get him in trouble, because he’s on a mission to intercept balls and he’ll guess a little bit. And weight-wise [177 pounds], you’d wish he’d be a little bit bigger. But he’s not afraid to tackle. He’ll throw his body at people.”

2. Scout’s view: Why did McCreight highlight Jack Jones (No. 121) as his favorite pick of the fourth round?

“Outstanding instincts and eyes. A tremendous feel for routes, and outstanding ball skills and hands,” McCreight said on the Ross Tucker Football Podcast.

“He has the physical ability. He’s big enough [5-foot-10 6/8]. He’s fast enough. You see him do some little things. He’s blocked punts in high school. He’s blocked kicks in his career.

“He has ball production; he can catch. He had a pick-six [vs. Arizona], heaved the ball into the stands. He’s got some moxie. ... To me, that was a steal because he’s going to get coached well in New England now. And you have a guy who is a playmaker.”

3. Differing views: McCreight’s report on Jones was in contrast to others, with Ourlads, Dane Brugler of The Athletic, and Lance Zierlein of NFL.com among those rating Jones in the range of a seventh round/priority free agent, and ESPN senior draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. opining that he “went about 70 picks too high.” It is a reminder of differing opinions in scouting.

4. Opening thoughts: Longtime Patriots safety and captain Devin McCourty made the point last year that when the team plays road games in Miami, “It’s always a little bit of a shock in pregame.” In 2014, he also said, “Whether it’s the beginning of the season or December, to try to get your body ready for that heat … it’s just tough.” Given that the Patriots open the 2022 season at the Dolphins, it wouldn’t be surprising if Belichick had McCourty’s words in mind and considered leaving for South Florida earlier than the traditional Saturday departure. That would give his team at least a day or two to practice in those conditions.

5. Patricia’s impact: Who replaces Josh McDaniels as the offensive playcaller is a question that hovers over the Patriots. Matt Patricia -- whose primary background in the NFL has been on defense -- is among the candidates to fill the void. Patricia is often seen with the offensive linemen in practice, and tackle Trent Brown said on The Pat McAfee Podcast: “His perspective coming from the other side of the ball, I think that will help us take huge strides this year.”

One reporter-based observation from spring practices: The Patriots seemed to spend more time on the running game than the norm, which might be related to some new blocking schemes Patricia is implementing.

6. Dugger’s goal: Third-year safety Kyle Dugger, the team’s top draft pick from the 2020 draft (second round, 37th), is coming off a season in which he was third on the team with 84 tackles and tied for second with four interceptions. He’s often easy to overlook because of his soft-spoken nature, but Dugger said one area he’s focused on in 2022 is “starting to embrace the vocal part and communication, and the importance of being a vocal leader more than I have in the past.”

7. Division II dominance: Between Dugger (Lenoir-Rhyne) and rookie defensive tackle Sam Roberts (Northwest Missouri State, sixth round), the Patriots have two of the last three winners of the Cliff Harris Award for the top defensive player in Division II. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, this makes the Patriots the third team to have two Cliff Harris Award winners on their roster, joining the 2021 Bears (Marqui Christian, Michael Joseph) and 2020 Jets (Christian, Corey Ballentine and Pierre Desir).

8. Humphrey file: Former Saints receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey, who signed a one-year deal with the Patriots last week, is a bigger target (6-foot-4, 225 pounds) and his best chance to stick projects to be on the practice squad. Humphrey didn’t play in last year’s Week 3 Saints-Patriots game, but the Patriots saw plenty of him in film study as he had a 27-yard catch over the middle in a Week 2 loss to the Panthers.

9. Did you know, Part I? Humphrey’s unique first name comes from his older brother wanting him to be named after Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan.

10. Did you know, Part II? The Patriots and Eagles are scheduled to play a league-high five games on short weeks during the 2022 season (less than seven days between games). The Jaguars, Jets and Falcons play the fewest (two each).