FOXBORO — Durability and dependability have been the trademarks for Jonathan Jones as a member of the New England Patriots over his first four seasons in the NFL.
“The first thing that we have to do is get in training camp and figure out who we are,” Jones said Tuesday of the many variables and obstacles for the Patriots in preparing for the NFL season. “Once we get on the field, I think we’ll be a step ahead.”
Jones has played in 63 of a possible 64 regular season games over that span, including all 16 games during his first three seasons. He started nine games last year, and 19 overall in his career.
It’s not the four interceptions over four seasons that might raise an eyebrow. It has been Jones’ ability to make tackles — 131 of them first hits, and being in on 56 and 53 tackles, respectively, the past two seasons.
The defensive secondary is the one roster area where there was no turnover for the Patriots this offseason. The corps remains intact with Stephon Gilmore at right corner back, Jason McCourty at left cornerback and with Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty as safeties.
“I’ve been able to learn a lot,” Jones said of his apprenticeship. “You speak on the mentorship from Devin (McCourty) and the older guys like that. It’s impacted my career so much because they’re always willing to help the young guys.
“Just that transition year after year, coming into a place like New England, which is not easy to play for, having those veterans who have done it at an elite level, it’s just some easy footsteps to follow.”
Jones is the next cornerback in the rotation, but he can also move to safety as one of the core five returnees. Adrian Phillips, a free agent obtained from the Chargers, is also in the mix at cornerback while second-round draft pick Kyle Dugger is appears to be the first safety in reserve.
“I think it will be extremely advantageous for us, if we use it to that advantage,” Jones said of the experience in the defensive secondary. “I know we use the word communication over and over, because in football that’s so key to make sure you get 11 guys to see the same picture at the same time.
“So in the back end, just having those guys who have seen the same thing over and over, there’s subtle communication between each other.”
The 26-year-old Jones signed with the Patriots as an undrafted free agent in 2016 out of Auburn. Jones signed a three-year extension of his contract last September, keeping him in New England through the 2023 season with a base salary of $7 million per year. The four-year contract was worth $24 million with $12 in guaranteed money over the first two seasons — basically raising his salary from $3 million last year to $8 million this year.
“Every year is a new year, every team is a new team,” Jones said of the Patriots being in the post-Tom Brady era, and without linebackers Jamie Collins and Kyle VanNoy who all opted to leave Foxboro for different venues.
“It’s a good place to be, I like being here, I like winning here,” Jones said of returning to New England for a fifth season. “Getting a new contract meant a lot to me.”
Although 5-foot-9, Jones plays big. He has consistently graded highly in run-stopping metrics among cornerbacks in the AFC East, while his strength in covering middle of the field targets has been top notch.
“Especially in our defense, guys line up outside, inside and a little of both,” said Jones. “The more that you can do within the defense, not limiting yourself to just being able to play the slot.
“Teams are running sub-offenses for all three downs, offenses are using their receivers that much more,” said Jones of teams using three and four wide receivers. “So, therefore on defense we have to match that. The slot guys, the nickel guys and the third and fourth corners are kind of increasing their value.”
Jones earned attention for the Patriots during the 2018 AFC Championship Game in taking on Kansas City’s Tyreek Hill. The Chiefs’ game-breaking receiver was limited to one catch on three targets by QB Patrick Mahomes.
The Patriots ranked as the most proficient team in the NFL defensively by ProFootball Reference, ranking No. 2 in pass defense with opposing quarterbacks completing 56.5 percent of their passes for an average yield of 180.4 yards per game.
Factor in the 25 pass interceptions and 47 sacks and the defense was the primary reason that New England won the AFC East title and reached the playoffs.
“Most special teams players are guys who can tackle well and run well,” Jones said of always being on the field for kickoff and punt returns. “Opportunity is extremely important. The organization that we’re in, everyone gets the opportunity, whether you’re a first round guy or an undrafted guy. For the young guys, I definitely say, you never know when the opportunity isgoing to come, so you must be prepared whatever it may be.
“When you get an opportunity, you have to play ball,” he added. “On special teams, you get to show that you can learn the system, that you can better yourself as a player and contribute. It may be a special teams role for a year. That might not be your own personal goals, but you have to stay the course and improve. Improvement is the key, from day to day.
“A lot of people come into the league and establish themselves on special teams and get to show that they are good players. It’s a gradual process, you do your best and try to excel at the tasks they give you. From there, your role expands and you continue to earn trust.”
Jones is one of only a handful of returnees on the Patriots roster who came to New England as free agents, joining Adam Butler, Gunner Olszewski, Matt Lacosse, Jakobi Meyers, John Simon and J.C. Jackson.
“Every guy kind of goes back to some of the plays that he didn’t make or that he was close to making the year before and finding a way, whether it’s mentally or physically to get closer to making those plays,” Jones said.
Like every other Patriot on the roster, live football will be treasured, even the strain of preseason workouts at Gillette Stadium, whenever they will be conducted.
“We’re staying on our routine of trying to maintain our normal workouts,” Jones said of individual sessions now aided by virtual team and position meetings. “I would say the lack of competition that we kind of get when we started, we haven’t really gotten to that phase.
“Live situations, that’s kind of the only thing that’s missing. As far and workouts and conditioning, we’re doing the same regimen we’d be doing while we’re there (Foxboro). I don’t think that’s changed much. The live work, in phase two of the OTA’s is kind of what we’re going to miss the most.
“Even for the veteran guys, just hearing some of those terminologies over and over again, and starting from scratch. That’s something that we do every year. We don’t assume that everyone knows anything, so we start on the playbook from page one.
“That’s a big personal goal of mine this year, to help contribute on the team as far as more turnovers. It’s the whole team, it starts up front, the secondary, all working together as one group. That’s what we have to start this year with to get anywhere close to where we were last year – it’s a whole new year, a whole new defense, a whole new team.”