By Tom Seifert and Ronan Nayak
The game of football consists of three phases: offense, defense, and special teams. In the NFL, the highest level of football in the world, a player usually only significantly contributes to one phase of the game. Some skill position players, like running backs, wide receivers and defensive backs, manage make contributions on special teams as returners along with their primary roles on offense or defense. Rarely does any player cross the boundary between offense and defense, and even more rarely does a player manage to contribute in all three phases of the game.
A recent addition to this short list of players to contribute to all 3 phases is Marcus Jones, a rookie cornerback, returner and wide receiver for the New England Patriots who has already managed to fill the stat sheet in all three phases at a historic level. This article will explore how Marcus Jones has been able to significantly impact the game in many different ways, how the Patriots have benefitted from his diverse skillset, and what could be in store for the rest of his young career going forward.
Only three players in the Super Bowl era (1970-present) have returned an interception for a touchdown, returned a punt for a touchdown and recorded a receiving touchdown over their entire careers: Deion Sanders, Dale Carter and Marcus Jones.
Of these three, Marcus Jones achieved this feat the earliest, recording these three types of touchdowns in just 15 games to Sanders’ 57 and Carter’s 66. While it took 4 seasons for Sanders and 5 seasons for Carter to record each type of touchdown, it took Jones only one season. For an achievement so few have been to reach across entire careers in the last 50+ years, it is incredibly impressive that Marcus Jones was able to join this short list so early on in his career.
Even further, Jones’ 2022 campaign was only the 21st season by a player in the Super Bowl era in which they recorded an interception return touchdown and a punt return touchdown in the same year. Doing so in his first year, Jones has the chance to join Deion Sanders as the only players to record multiple seasons with both an interception return touchdown and a punt return touchdown if he is able to repeat this feat in the future.
However, Jones’ playmaking milestones do not fully capture his impact. We will now investigate how he contributes to each phase of the game individually, starting with special teams, where he excelled as the lead punt returner and a kick returner for the Patriots last season.
Kick and Punt Returning
Among his many talents on the football field, Marcus Jones has excelled most as a return specialist on special teams. In 2022, his rookie season, he served as the Patriots lead punt and kick returner, recording the most kick and punt returns on the team, with 27 and 29 respectively. Not only did he take over returning duties as a rookie, but he performed well enough to earn him a spot as the punt returner on the NFL’s 2022 All-Pro first team. The defining moment of his rookie year came in Week 11 against the Jets when returned a punt for a touchdown in the final seconds to win the game.
To show how Jones’ performance in a variety of return statistics compared to other returners around the league last season, here is a table displaying return stats converted to percentiles for the top 20 returners in the NFL by total return yards in 2022 (100 = highest in the league, 0 = lowest in the league):
PR: # of punts returned
PRYds: # of punt return yards
PRTds: # of punts returned for a touchdown
PRLng: Longest punt return
Yds/PR: Average yards per punt return
KR: # of kicks returned
KRYds: # of kick return yards
KRTds: # of kicks returned for a touchdown
KRLng: Longest kick return
Yds/KR: Average yards per kick return
APYds: All-purpose yards (offensive yards + return yards)
ReturnYds: Total return yards (kick return yards + punt return yards)
Marcus Jones ranked second in the league in total return yards, only behind All-Pro First team kick returner Keisean Nixon. He is also one of five players to rank 70th percentile or better in all return yardage stats, all while being only 37th percentile in age.
Why is this important? As a returner, your job is to set the offense up with the best field position after the defense either allows a score or forces the other offense to punt. The longer the return, the shorter the offense needs to go to score. By ranking so highly in return yardage statistics, Jones is contributing to the Patriots chances to score on offense and thus their chance to win games. In order to highlight this impact, we created a model to see if there was a correlation between NFL teams’ average starting field position for offensive drives to the percentage of drives in which they score in the 2022 season. We also investigated other factors that could contribute to team scoring percentage.
Field Position and Scoring % Model
We fit a linear model using the explanatory variables average plays, yards, and starting field position to predict scoring percentage. Below we see that this model was a good fit for the data for all of these explanatory variables individually, as each variable has trends that share intercepts and very similar trend lines between the model and the data. We also find that the explanatory variables together are statistically significant in predicting and analyzing scoring percentage as the F-statistic yields p-value 1.575e-11 allowing us to reject the null that all of these explanatory variables have no effect on scoring percentage. Using the summary function on this linear model, we find that both yards (p-value = 3.634211e-08) and starting position (p-value = 0.0206) are statistically significant in determining scoring percentage.
Marcus Jones has the second most combined punt and return yards (1007.00 ; only behind Keisean Nixon: 1149.00) and has the most for players under 25 years old—this impacts starting position which we have found has a strong positive relationship with scoring percentage.
Despite Marcus Jones being so successful in this realm and leading the Patriots to the second best average starting position in the league, the Patriots had the 10th worst scoring percentage in the league (32 teams) at 27.8%. The Cardinals managed to record a higher scoring percentage of 29.2% despite having a lead returner, Greg Dortch, that ranked 34th in total return yards last year. This means that the Patriots offense failed to score at the rate they should have given their great starting field position, diminishing Marcus Jones’ impact in the grand scheme of a game. Jones’ impact as a returner could be better used on a team such as the Las Vegas Raiders that ranked 5th in scoring percentage but 30th in starting field position last season. It is clear that while returners like Marcus Jones can increase the chance of their team scoring and thus increase the chance winning, not every team experiences this benefit. A team like the Raiders could see massive improvement in scoring percentage if they added an elite returner, but a team like the Patriots has to make strides on offense to reap the benefits of a player like Marcus Jones.
However, evidently offense and scoring percentage are not the only things that make a team successful. It is also important how teams play on the other side of the ball, and how well their players play defense to allow their offense to be on the field. Good thing Marcus Jones also does this.
Marcus Jones’s big play ability doesn’t stop with the return game. Despite only a limited role as a rookie, Jones finished the season with two interceptions. He was one of nine players to have multiple interceptions while starting less than five games started last year. He made sure to make each interception count, as he ranked 8th in interception return yards despite ranking 55th in interceptions. This is another example of Jones setting his team up for success, stopping the other team’s offensive drive and returning the ball back to give the offense a better chance of scoring.
Outside of special teams, Marcus Jones’ impact manifested itself in flashes—with few opportunities, he made big plays. On defense, this included a 69-yard interception return for a touchdown in just his third start. On offense, he took a screen pass 48 yards for a touchdown on his first career catch. It remains to be seen how his impact could be fleshed out across more consistent playing time on offense and defense, but so far, the Patriots have struck gold in the production they’ve gotten out of a rookie third round pick given his few opportunities on the field.
Even through just one year in the NFL, Marcus Jones has established himself as one of the more unique, explosive and versatile players in the league. Given his success in the return game and brief flashes of talent on offense and defense, expect Jones to only grow within New England’s system as not only a gadget player but as more of a volume contributor on offense and defense. Particularly on a team like New England, a team needing an offensive boost in the post-Brady era, Jones’ big play ability could really help take advantage of their elite starting field position to generate more offense.