After an offseason of great roster turnover, the Kansas City Chiefs will need to find new options to return kicks and punts. Having lost wide receiver Byron Pringle to the Chicago Bears and cornerback Mike Hughes to the Detroit Lions, receiver Mecole Hardman is the only in-house option with experience in the return game. However, Hardman may be called to fill a more prominent role on offense after the Chiefs traded Tyreek Hill to the Miami Dolphins.
The Chiefs will likely use a draft pick on a player who can immediately help special teams coordinator Dave Toub on return units. One such player might be University of Houston cornerback Marcus Jones; a player NFL.com has compared to Chiefs legend Dante Hall.
Jones played his junior and senior years at Houston after transferring from Troy. Over four college seasons, he recorded nine interceptions, with a total of 134 return yards and one pick-six. He terrorized competition in the return game, with six career touchdowns off of kick returns and three off of punts. He also totaled 15 receptions for 137 yards and a touchdown.
Most of Jones’ tape shows him lined up as an outside cornerback, though with a tiny frame at 5 feet 8 and 174 pounds and less than 29-inch arms, that will not be an option in the NFL. Jones did not run at the combine or Houston’s pro day as he recovered from offseason shoulder surgery. While he has not yet been connected to the Chiefs, he does have several top-30 visits scheduled and is expected to be full-go for training camp.
We will start with the aspect most likely to get a vastly undersized cornerback drafted: his contributions in the return game. Jones is, simply put, a threat to score any time the ball is kicked to him.
Houston CB Marcus Jones is one of my favorite prospects in the third/fourth round range. With Mike Hughes and Byron Pringle gone, the Chiefs need to be looking for a contributor in the return game. Especially if Mecole Hardman gets locked into a heavier role on offense. pic.twitter.com/KKTQqPxZlB— Jared Sapp (@TrumanChief) April 2, 2022
Many elite returners have nominally had cornerback next to their name on a roster without actually contributing on defense. While his ceiling on defense is likely a sub-package slot corner, Jones is a willing tackler and has shown the ability to cut off routes. He also shows good instincts near the line of scrimmage at the snap. In this clip, he wraps up Calvin Austin III, an expected day two pick with elite speed.
Jones has the physicality near the line that Steve Spagnuolo values in DB. Calvin Austin, maybe the fastest receiver in the draft, is unable to get by Jones and is quickly wrapped up. pic.twitter.com/slwe0PIB9p— Jared Sapp (@TrumanChief) April 3, 2022
Jones’ speed also can give him a second chance if beat on the route. In this clip, he looks to be torched for a touchdown, only to catch up with the receiver and get in front of him for an interception.
Jones' size is going to limit his role on defense, but we also are not talking about a Javier Arenas type who will just nominally have CB next to his name on the roster. His speed translates to defense and he has good instincts. He is fast enough to recover and make this play. pic.twitter.com/1mw8At7l6x— Jared Sapp (@TrumanChief) April 2, 2022
Any contributions Jones can make will be limited by his small size. He did not regularly face top competition either at Troy or Houston. He lined up outside against bigger receivers for most of his college career and won with his elite speed. He will be exposed one-on-one with NFL talent who will either have the speed to match him or savvy moves to get by him. In this clip against Texas Tech, the size difference is apparent. His good tackling keeps this from being a big play, but good NFL receivers would be able to break away from him.
Jones' speed allowed him to primarily line up outside at Houston. Rarely playing top teams, he was more than able to get by with it. He recognizes that he isn't going to make a contested catch. A nice tackle limits the play to a 6-yard gain, but NFL receivers will make him pay pic.twitter.com/FDySYB1r4a— Jared Sapp (@TrumanChief) April 3, 2022
A team might draft Jones with the intention of reaping immediate benefits in the return game and converting him to receiver. He is very raw as an option in the passing game but shows potential to use his vertical speed on offense. There is no complexity to this route he runs against Navy, but an NFL team drafting him would have to consider the damage he can do with the ball in his hands.
A team might legitimately draft Marcus Jones planning to convert him to WR. His speed is real, and 5'8 has a better track record on offense than defense. I think he can stick in a secondary while returning kicks and being used strategically as a receiver pic.twitter.com/o4A58qICMW— Jared Sapp (@TrumanChief) April 3, 2022
How he fits with the Chiefs
The Chiefs have placed a premium on return-game ability in nine seasons under Andy Reid. If the Chiefs drafted Jones, he would immediately contribute to Toub’s units, possibly returning punts and kickoffs.
Jones would be unlikely to see immediate playing time on defense; it would be very unlike Reid and staff to ask him to focus on anything more than return duties to start his career. Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo likely would not be enamored with Jones’ size, though his playmaking potential as a slot corner would merit development. The Chiefs appear to have sought this type of player in recent drafts. The Chiefs signed former Clemson cornerback Mark Fields after the 2019 draft and Nebraska cornerback Dicaprio Bootle in last year’s undrafted free agency. They brought a similar playing style and had a similar role projection as Jones, though neither were as dramatically undersized.
The Chiefs would likely be a team that would consider drafting Jones to convert him to wide receiver. Because of their notoriously difficult-to-learn playbook, some of the Chiefs’ best successes in developing receivers have been raw talents who are still learning rather than established route runners whose developed skills do not always translate. While Hill has become an elite wide receiver, it is easy to forget that he was a college running back who finished his career at Division II Western Alabama.
The Chiefs have shown a willingness to bet on long speed and gradually increase a player’s role as he shows he can handle it. It is doubtful that Jones — or any player in this year’s draft — turns into a Hill level success story, but the Chiefs coaching staff would be well equipped to handle a position switch for Jones.
Jones also could simply be a player who earns his pay as a return man while being strategically used on offense and defense.
The bottom line
Jones is a player whose selection would most excite Toub, but Reid and Spagnuolo would instantly be intrigued by his potential. The Chiefs have shown an appreciation for gadget-type players, and Jones fits the mold.
Jones’ return ability gives him a relatively high floor to stick on an NFL roster. Establishing a role for him on offense or defense is likely to take a least a season’s worth of development, but the Chiefs’ staff has shown a willingness to be patient for such potential payoff.
With the departures of Hill, Hughes, and Pringle, we should expect to see a player drafted in the mid-rounds who profiles as a day-one return game option. Jones could be an option that offers a bigger payoff.