Back in May, when the Patriots drafted Cyrus Jones in the second round, Patriots director of player personel Nick Caserio made it very clear: Jones' ability to return punts is what made him their favorite player available at pick No. 60.
"I think the thing that tipped the scales in Cyrus’ favor a little bit," Caserio said at the time, "was his overall versatility -- punt return -- that’s a huge component of what we do and we thought he had the ability."
Jones broke out with a 60-yard return on Friday against the Panthers, flashing the kind of explosion in the kicking game that the Patriots anticipated when they made him their first selection this year.
Though Jones has admitted he has had his share of issues securing the football during punt-return periods in practice, he has not dropped a punt in a preseason game. And in a conference call on Saturday, Bill Belichick acknowledged that Jones could be the team's primary punt returner in Week 1 even though the team employs two accomplished players who have performed that well in the past.
"Yeah, I think that’s a consideration," Belichick said of using Jones as the No. 1 returner. "Obviously, Danny [Amendola] and Julian [Edelman] have a lot of experience returning punts for us as well as kickoffs in the past. We’ll see how it goes, but we have good depth at that position and that’s always a good thing to have.
"We have confidence in all of those guys back there. Last night we even had D.J. [Foster] who got a chance to handle the ball. We’ll see how it goes going forward, but I think we have good competition and good depth at that position."
Saving Edelman and Amendola from further wear-and-tear could help extend the careers of both 30-year-old receivers. Not long after Jones was drafted, we took a look at how many hits Edelman and/or Amendola could be saved on a weekly basis by using Jones in the kicking game.
When you check out the Patriots-Panthers game notes on Patriots.com, the lead bullet point is one of the least interesting: "The New England Patriots are off to a 3-0 start in the preseason for the sixth time in team history . . . and for the second time under Bill Belichick."
Belichick and the Patriots went undefeated in preseason play back in 2003. One of the best teams in Patriots history, that group went on to win the franchise's second Super Bowl in three years.
It's the preseason, though, so who cares about wins and losses? Well, Belichick does. During a conference call on Saturday he was asked if it was a big deal for him and his team to be winning these preseason games, and he responded by explaining his approach to exhibition football.
"I think what we tell our players and coaches is that we’re going to coach and play to win," he said. "We’re obviously not going to pull out all the stops in terms of every trick play we’ve ever used or things like that, but whatever the situation calls for, we’re going to play it as competitively as we can play it given the limitations that we have and based on the amount of experience our players have in the game at that certain point and what we’ve been able to cover."
It makes sense. Obviously teams don't want to reveal any surprise sets they may have saved for the regular season. And coaches aren't going to get exotic with their defensive calls or their offensive formations at this time of year. What basic plays they do run, however, they would like to execute successfully.
They want to win the fight, but they're going to try to do it with their jab and straight right. The combinations and the counters will have to wait.
"We haven’t covered every single thing that we would want to cover or hope to cover to start the season, especially situational football," Belichick added. "But as far as competing and playing, we’re doing everything we can to win., but within the context of doing what we’re capable of doing right now. We’re trying to win, we’re trying to do everything as well as we can do it, but not pulling out all the stops in terms of playing time, strategizing and so forth that we would do in the regular season."
Bruins Insider Joe Haggerty is profiling players who will be on, or have a chance to be on, the 2016-17 Bruins. Today: Jake DeBrusk.