FOXBOROUGH — The whispers started in the summer of 2016.
“J Jones gonna make this team at gunner,’’ Devin McCourty would tell his Patriots teammates during the dog days of training camp.
“J Jones” was Jonathan Jones, a rookie cornerback who despite a sterling résumé out of Auburn had slipped through the cracks on every team’s draft board and ended up signing with the Patriots.
Blessed with blazing speed and excellent strength — Jones was a top Combine performer in both the 40-yard dash (4.33) and bench press (19 reps of 225 pounds) — he not only turned McCourty’s head but he also was leaving an impression on the coaching staff, which couldn’t ignore his playmaking and competitiveness.
Lining up on the punt coverage unit on the other side of the field from Matthew Slater — the team’s fastest player and the NFL’s platinum standard at the gunner role — the two would consistently arrive on the returner’s doorstep at the same time.
McCourty’s words proved prophetic, as Jones not only made the team, he immediately began making an impact on special teams and eventually on defense.
His real coming-out party was in Denver in Week 15 when he earned the start as the nickel corner, recording three tackles. He also recovered an early muffed punt that led to a Patriots field goal as the team earned one of its most important wins of the season.
When the Patriots reconvened for training camp in July fresh off their Super Bowl LI title, the whispers about Jones continued. Only they were a decibel or two louder.
“J Jones is making plays on defense,’’ McCourty would say to any and all listeners.
After Jones’s latest performance — he played a key role in keeping Miami dynamo Jarvis Landry under wraps last Sunday — the whispers have turned to roars of approval.
Though Landry had eight catches, he was held to 70 yards. Jones said limiting Landry’s yards after catch was a point of emphasis all week.
“Definitely. I mean, he’s dangerous with the ball in his hands,’’ said Jones. “When you go out there, you want to try to eliminate those plays as much as you can.’’
A combination of film work and technique were the keys to the job he did keeping the clamps on Landry.
“I would say making the play, seeing where they like to go from the film study,’’ said Jones, who drew some inspiration from watching his ex-Auburn teammates beat Alabama in the Iron Bowl the previous day. “Try to keep your leverage and attack and play within the defense in order to eliminate as many plays as you can.”
It wasn’t just in coverage where Jones made his impact against the Dolphins. He literally made an impact on Matt Moore when he stormed in off the edge and dropped the quarterback for a 15-yard loss. The play drew raves from Bill Belichick.
“A really good play where he came free on the blitz and then broke down and made a tackle on Moore and was under control and came to balance — plays like that where we’ve all seen guys miss those plays,’’ said the coach. “That was a good example of just a one-on-one open-field space tackle that he executed very well.’’
Jones’s calling card, whether it’s at gunner or in the secondary, is relentlessness. Similar to Malcolm Butler, another undrafted free agent corner, Jones competes through the whistle. Whether he’s knocking a ball out of a receiver’s hands in the end zone (see Ted Ginn in Week 2), pinning a punt returner in the end zone for a safety (see Kelvin Benjamin in Week 8), or sacking the quarterback, Jones is in constant motion.
It was that characteristic that showed up during the evaluation process, said Belichick. Where other teams saw a player that was too small — Jones was listed at 5 feet 9 inches, 186 pounds at the Combine — the Patriots saw a player they wanted to work with.
“John plays bigger — bigger than his size, what he looks like — and he plays hard and does a really good job of finishing plays,” said Belichick, “whether that’s covering kicks, blocking gunners, playing the deep ball, finishing on the ball when the receiver is in the process of catching it, tackling, all those things. He does a real good job.’’
McCourty acknowledged that Jones is constantly surprising him with his late-play magic.
“You’ve see a bunch of those where it’s like, ‘Damn!’ and then you’re like, ‘Oh!’ He finishes,’’ said McCourty. “Guy has the ball and he’s going to the ground and the ball pops out.
“That’s just how he plays — even at gunner. Guy drops the ball, he hits them right away. Muff. Our guys are jumping on the ball. So he plays very hard, but he’s always prepared.’’
McCourty paid Jones the highest compliment, saying that when Jones comes into the game, he never has to worry about Jones knowing his assignment.
“I think it’s funny for a guy that was mainly a special teams player, that now when he comes in on defense we don’t have to be like, ‘We’ve got to get J Jones right,’ ’’ said McCourty. “Instead, we’re relying on him to lead the group a little bit and be in the right place and help other guys out. I think that goes to his preparation.’’
The whispers have been silenced for now. But if J Jones shows up next summer ready to play offense, it’d be wise to listen to what McCourty has to say.