Friday, July 29, 2016

Reloading The Musket, Part 8 - Cyrus "The Virus" Jones Completes Elite Patriots' Secondary

His nickname might be Clamp Clampington now, but once opposing receivers get a load of rookie cornerback Cyrus Jones, they are going to call him something far more foreboding.

Say hello to Cyrus the Virus.

Far from being the murderous thug portrayed in the cliche'-filled film Con Air, Jones is loved by teammates, loathed by receivers and is the maker of highly circumspect signal callers. Typical of New England Patriots' cornerbacks in that he has less than ideal measurables - giving up several inches to today's taller receivers - Jones makes up for that with excellent technique, ball skills and run support.

All of the Patriots defensive backs are competitive, but none of them except Jones could be considered downright antagonistic. Known for his aggression against receivers on the field and his combative tweets on social media, Jones has actually toned down his reaction to adversity and has been able to mask his on-field emotions to a degree...

...which is fortunate, because growing up even missing a tackle was cause for Jones to become inconsolable. "Some people on the outside couldn't understand. 'Why is he crying? Why does he want the ball all the time?" said his father, Cyrus Sr. "Hopefully now, they can see why."

The coaches at Alabama saw why, as did opposing quarterbacks and receivers and so, apparently, did Patriots' head ball coach and defacto general manager Bill Belichick who used top draft capital on Jones, bringing him in to join the likes of Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, Devin McCourty, Pat Chung and Duron Harmon in New England's secondary... already top-ranked secondary according the folks at Pro Football Focus, who slotted them at number three in the entire National Football League, with the caveat that all they were missing was an effective nickle corner, then stating, "They hope to have improved the position with the selection of Cyrus Jones..."

A former wide receiver who transitioned to the cornerback role in college, Jones has exceptional ball skills and impeccable timing, plus has the field vision to become the Patriots' primary punt returner as proven by his four returns for touchdowns for the Crimson Tide last season, his only college season with that responsibility - meaning that his potential is virtually untapped.

The really scary thing for opposing offensive coordinators is that the Patriots have achieved such a lofty status despite having one of the youngest starting secondaries in the NFL at just over 25 years of age on average - the elder statesmen being Chung and McCourty, both at just 28 years old - and with a full stable of young greyhounds learning the ropes behind them, the future is just as bright as the present, if not more so.

The trio of safeties on the back end comprise the best Big Nickle squad in the game.  Harmon patrolling the the deep zone with the range of a speedy centerfielder allows McCourty - a former first round selection as a cornerback - and Chung to reduce down into the five-yard buffer off the line of scrimmage to act as a nickle corner and a weakside linebacker, respectively, McCourty helping out on outside receivers while Chung focuses on the running back.

Combined with the bulk of the front four taking on interior double teams and setting a hard edge on the outside, this alignment allows for the strong side linebacker to mirror the tight end and for the middle linebacker to read and react to the ball - the result of which provided the Patriots with a top ten defense last season - and it's only going to get better.

Because of the success of the alignment, Belichick will likely keep six safeties on the roster for a second consecutive season, limiting the roster spots for the true cornerbacks.

McCourty, Chung and Harmon are givens, as is second-year strong safety Jordan Richards, who is an insurance policy against any free agency defections next offseason, but the depth behind these four is a matter of some conjecture, as the last two slots traditionally go to special teams' mavens.

Last season, those went to Olympic Rugby player Nate Ebner and former Auburn "star" linebacker Brandon King, both of whom more than made a case for continuation in those roles in 2016, which is bad news for the fringe players vying for a spot on the 53 - the one exception could be rookie Kamu Grugier-Hill, who played weakside linebacker in college, but has the speed and athleticism to make the team as a Chung-like Big Nickle...

...though he could likely count against the linebacker depth chart.  Regardless, the limitations on the roster spots could again leave the team with just four corners - and with Butler, Ryan and Jones locks to make the roster, that leaves just one spot open amid a glut of potential candidates.

The smart money would be on either Justin Coleman or Darryl Roberts, both second year players with off-the-charts intangibles.

Roberts broke a bone in his wrist and landed on the Patriots' IR last preseason which, in retrospect, allowed the team to keep him around rather than expose him to waivers at the end of camp - a sure cut who needed a year of technique work and refinement, not to mention getting his skinny butt into the weight room, and the team took advantage of all of that once his injury healed.

The Marshall product has elite speed (4.38), loose hips to charge direction on a dime and rocket launchers in his legs to get to high balls, but he also had bad habits that needed to be corrected, such as mugging receivers well into their pattern, drawing laundry from the referees.

As a result of injuries to Roberts and others, the rookie Coleman got plenty of opportunity to display his wares as a nickle corner, logging five passes defended and 21 tackles in his ten games with New England in 2015 - this despite less-than-prototypical speed.  What set the Tennessee product apart from his contemporaries was his quickness underneath, something he displayed in abundance at the scouting combine...

...notching top grades in the twenty and sixty yard shuttles as well as the three cone drill.  Coleman bounced around early in the season between Minnesota, Seattle and Foxborough, but eventually settled in with the Patriots and held up well.

In many ways, Jones is a compendium of those two second year players: He doesn't carry Roberts' fast wheels, but does display a penchant for punking receivers, and he didn't blow up the pre-draft process like Coleman did, instead displaying incredibly normal athleticism - but when he punks the receiver, he does so within the five-yard mugging zone that corners are allowed to have contact with them.

This is his main attribute.  His ability to fight in the legal zone and intimidate pass catchers with his aggressive posture, excellent play strength and nasty attitude are key, but the fact that he transitioned from wide receiver at Alabama to the other side of the ball in his sophomore season gives him a unique insight into the head of a pass catcher, making it easy for him to get under their skin.

His game is intimidation, and once he gets under a receiver's skin there is no cure for him - there is no antibiotic to inject them with, no salve to calm their savage rash, not even a magical elixer to treat the symptoms.  Receivers are just going to have to let Cyrus the Virus run his course and just hope that the next time they meet, they can wash their hands of him.

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