The bright spots were few and far between in the New England Patriots’ 24-10 loss to the Buffalo Bills. If not for Marcus Jones, those bright spots would have been fewer and farther between for a 6-6 team on the floor of the AFC East standings.
The rookie cornerback made his first NFL start on defense last Thursday night at Gillette Stadium and deflected a pass intended for wide receiver Gabe Davis. On special teams, he had a hand in a solo tackle on running back Nyheim Hines to go with three kickoff returns for 65 yards. And on the offensive side of the ball, the reigning Paul Hornung Award winner turned his first career snap into a 48-yard sprint to the end zone on a screen pass from quarterback Mac Jones.
It was more of what had been shown by the former transfer from Troy to Houston, who earned consensus All-American recognition as a redshirt senior in 2021.
“Yeah, I mean, Marcus was an impressive player in college, as well,” Patriots wide receivers and returners coach Troy Brown told reporters during his Monday video conference. “He showed up here with some injuries and stuff like that. That didn’t allow him to participate in the spring or over training camp. Now he’s developing into a player that’s kind of helped us all over the field.”
The 24-year-old Jones underwent surgeries on both shoulders prior to being selected by New England in the third round of April’s NFL draft. He played four snaps on defense across the initial four games of the regular season and did not become the primary punt and kickoff returner until October.
But in November, AFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors followed his 84-yard touchdown with five seconds remaining against the New York Jets. More has followed since then.
During his run from the Sun Belt to the American Athletic Conference, Jones caught 15 passes for 137 yards with one touchdown. He did so while totaling nine interceptions and tying the NCAA record in the kicking game with nine total return touchdowns.
“So, special teams, defense and now on offense,” said Brown. “He’s good running with the ball in his hands. He’s fast, he’s quick, he’s strong and he’s tough. And the most important thing is he has a great attitude about playing football. He’s a guy that wants to be out there, wants to be involved and he wants to help.”
There are comparisons.
Now 51, Brown’s playing career in New England spanned from 1993 to 2007. Including postseason, it spanned 615 catches for 7,060 yards and 33 touchdowns. But it also spanned three interceptions and four punts returned for touchdowns. The Marshall product finished as a three-time Super Bowl champion, and as a member of both the College Football Hall of Fame and Patriots Hall of Fame.
“Marcus is far ahead of me,” Brown said of pick No. 85 overall’s athleticism. “He’s far ahead of where I was, especially at this point in his career, and he’s continuing to earn the right to be on the field. So, we hope he keeps it up.”
Last week, Jones became the first defensive back to record a touchdown reception since Marcus Coleman of the New York Jets on Sept. 17, 2000. He became the first Patriots player to record a touchdown on his first reception since wideout Aaron Dobson on Sept. 12, 2013. And from 48 yards out, the touchdown marked the longest first play by a Patriots player since wideout Stephen Starring caught a 73-yard touchdown on Sept. 4, 1983.
Jones reached a top speed of 20.88 mph in the process, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, the fastest time of any New England ball-carrier this campaign. The 5-foot-8, 185-pound corner also matched his career high with 34 defensive downs played.
“He’s got a great attitude about the game of football,” added Brown. “He wants to be out there. He wants to play. Very confident he can make plays, and those are the people you love working with.”