Marcus Jones was ready for prime time.
The Patriots’ electrifying rookie accomplished much in 2022, not the least of which was joining Deion Sanders as the only players with a receiving touchdown, a punt return touchdown, and an interception return for a touchdown in the last 45 years.
Sanders accomplished that hat trick over the course of a 14-year Hall of Fame career. Jones did it over the course of a couple of weeks.
Jones carried a lot on his 5-foot-8-inch, 175-pound frame, playing cornerback, wide receiver, and earning All-Pro honors as a punt returner.
“Marcus, bro,” linebacker Matthew Judon said with a slight shake of his head shortly after Jones’s pick-6 on Bengals quarterback Burrow on Christmas Eve. “Marcus is always in the right spot at the right time, and he makes the correct plays. I don’t think you could ask more from a guy, but every week we do. And he delivers. Every week Marcus has come out and delivered.”
Jones will be counted on for years to come to be a leader in all three phases of the game, but especially on special teams, where his ability to quickly flip the field can be game changing.
It wasn’t always easy sledding in the kicking game in 2022, though Jones and fellow rookie Brenden Schooler and the continued stellar performances of veterans Matthew Slater and Nick Folk were the highlights.
Similar to his good buddy Devin McCourty, Slater is considering retirement. If he does hang ‘em up, his roster spot will be taken, but to think he can be easily replaced is a gross understatement.
Slater’s coverage skills are elite — as Bill Belichick noted this season, the 15-year veteran still routinely draws double teams — and he perennially collects double-digit tackles in the kicking game.
Away from the field, Slater is one of the most respected players in every corner of the locker room and every corner of the NFL. He’ll one day join his father, Jackie, in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Schooler started impressing as soon as training camp opened, and he literally never slowed down. Using his exceptional quickness and speed, he racked up a team-high 14 special teams tackles and recovered a pair of fumbles.
Along with Slater, Schooler was a legitimate Pro Bowl snub.
Folk was again very consistent, hitting 32 of 37 field goals, including 4 of 5 from 50-plus yards. The 15-year veteran inherited kickoff duties when punter Jake Bailey went on injured reserve and he struggled some in that area, as getting the ball deep was a problem.
Folk is under contract for another year, as is Quinn Nordin, who spent the season on the reserve/nonfootball injury list and could return to provide competition this summer.
Belichick indicated Bailey still has a future in New England, but the former All-Pro’s situation is a curious one. He went on IR with a back problem but was subsequently suspended for the final two games of the season. His agent, Doug Hendrickson, said the suspension came as a surprise and a grievance was filed. The outcome of that grievance likely will dictate Bailey’s future in New England.
If Bailey can return to form, it would be a huge boost. An All-Pro in 2020, Bailey was not only an exceptional distance and directional punter, but his ability to deftly place kickoffs inside the 5-yard line — allowing his coverage unit to drop returners shy of the 25-yard line — was excellent.
Long snapper Joe Cardona missed the final three games of the season with a foot injury, his first missed action in an eight-year career. He’s a free agent, but it would be nothing short of shocking if the Naval Academy grad didn’t re-up.
Top free agent kickers: Robbie Gould (49ers), Matt Gay (Rams), Matt Prater (Cardinals).
Top draftable kickers: Ethan Mooney (North Texas), Gavin Baechle, (UTEP), Will Reichard (Alabama).
Top free agent punters: Andy Lee (Cardinals), Thomas Morstead (Dolphins), Bradley Pinion (Falcons).
Top draftable punters: Brad Robbins (Michigan), Bryce Baringer (Michigan State), Ty Zentner (Kansas State).
Jim McBride can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globejimmcbride.