New England cornerback Jonathan Jones, once an undrafted free agent, has shown the versatility to make him an important part of the secondary. Michael Perez/Associated Press


The Patriots cannot play. They cannot practice. They cannot meet.

They can, however, talk. A lot.

Believe it or not, the Patriots are good at talking. As much as they effort to remain tight-lipped in interviews, they break an even bigger sweat over-communicating behind the scenes and on the field. So, unable to drill any of their physical skills during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, it’s jibber-jabbering in football jargon they’re practicing now.

New England cornerback Jonathan Jones enters his fifth season as a key part of the secondary. Charles Krupa/Associated Press

On Tuesday, veteran cornerback Jonathan Jones used some version of the word “communicate” eight times while explaining to reporters how the Patriots just kicked off their organized team activities (OTAs) during a 14-minute interview held via video conference, just like all the team’s meetings have been this offseason. Players sit at home listening to presentations from their coaches, take notes and ask questions, just as they would during any other year but from inside the team’s facility.

The focus of every meeting is the same.

“It’s to have everyone on the same mental plane as far as communication, (and) refreshing that,” Jones said. “I mean, even for the veteran guys, just hearing some of those terminologies over and over again, and starting from scratch. I think that’s something we kind of do every year. We don’t assume that everyone knows anything, so we start on the playbook from page one.”

Now entering his fifth season, Jones firmly belongs with those veteran guys. No position group is older and wiser than his secondary, where Jones’ elders include fellow corners Stephon Gilmore and Jason McCourty, plus safeties Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Adrian Phillips. Together, aside from Phillips (a free-agent addition), they comprised the NFL’s best pass defense in 2019, ranking No. 1 in yards allowed per game and yards per pass attempt.

Because of that experience, Jones expects the Patriots to be among the league’s elite again – right from the get-go.

“In the (secondary), just having those guys who have seen the same thing over and over, there’s subtle communication between each other that we’ve grown into an understanding. So, getting back to that once we get on the field, I think we’ll be a step ahead,” Jones said. “But, like I said, we have to continue with that with these meetings to just kind of refresh that.”

Communication is the lifeblood of any secondary, but particularly for the Patriots. Defensive backs will frequently swap positions, assignments and alignments, sometimes all in one series. Chung switches from playing deep zone coverage to in the box as a linebacker and occasionally over the slot. Meanwhile, Jones will ping-pong between covering slot receivers to those out wide, while he part-times at free safety, where he took snaps in 11 games last year.

None of this could be remotely possible without proper communication.

Such pre-snap coordination sets the table for prized, post-snap versatility, which allows the defense to stay ahead of offensive innovation. Coach Bill Belichick has long recognized the value of a shape-shifting secondary, one that can adapt game to game and even series to series, ironing out game-plan wrinkles before the first quarter is over.

Belichick signed Jones to a comfy contract extension last September that should keep him in New England through 2022. In March, Belichick re-signed Devin McCourty and added Phillips – who played five different positions last year for the Chargers – then spent the Patriots’ first draft pick on safety Kyle Dugger in April. Dugger’s ceiling has been described like a portrait of the perfect modern pass defender: a safety with McCourty’s speed and savvy, plus Chung’s ability to hang and bang in the box.

The lessons Dugger will soon learn from his new teammates, veterans of several Super Bowls, Pro Bowls and, in McCourty’s case, a few All-Pro second teams, should help unlock this potential.

That is, provided he communicates.

“For the young guys, I definitely say you never know when the opportunity is going to come, so you must be prepared whatever it may be,” said Jones, a former undrafted rookie free agent. “It may be a special teams role for a year and that might not be your own personal goals, but you have to stay the course and improve. Improvement is also key. From day to day, that’s extremely important just to improve.”

At home, Jones has been taking his own advice during virtual OTAs. He said striving to better himself daily is how he intends to snap a personal interception drought that dates back to 2019. Last season, his defensive teammates often playfully ribbed him about recording zero interceptions, despite the fact he forced two fumbles and performed as one of the league’s best cornerbacks through midseason.

Because even for the league’s best pass defense, and one of its central figures, there’s plenty of room to improve – especially if they want to stay a step ahead.

“I think the whole team … the secondary, (it’s) just all working together as one group. That’s what we have to start this year to get anywhere close to where we were last year,” Jones said. “Like I said, it’s a whole new year, a whole new defense, a whole new team. So, just figuring out who we are as a team and how we win best on defense is our task this year.”

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