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BillyCarpenter1 07-20-2003 01:03 PM

Tebucky Jones Article

Pats' Jones best safety net in free agency

By Pete Prisco Senior Writer

The idea is to find the ideal NFL free agent, mining the lists for a gem that simply needs a little polishing. This player can't be a name player, and his best football can't be behind him.

That trims the field.

He is a player on the rise, a player who features the all-important speed now needed on both sides of the ball, as well as having the ability to grow into a possible difference-maker.

Tebucky Jones has the speed and youth teams now covet in free agency. (Getty Images)
This player has to have been a starter for at least two years, falls in the target age range of 26-28, and have had no off-field blips. There can be no serious health issues, either.

Again, that trims the field.

Yet each year when the NFL opens its free-agency period, the focus is always on the supposed stars, guys with name recognition, some with injury pasts. They have long resumes and are usually just as long in the tooth.

But that doesn't stop the fans, as well as the teams, from honing in on these types of players as potential free-agent targets. Names sell. But do they win?

The reality is they should be looking for just the opposite, finding players whose best resume work is still to come.

Players like New England Patriots safety Tebucky Jones.

He is the ideal free agent.

At 27 years old, with four years of starting experience at two different positions (he can also play corner) and 4.3 40 speed on a powerfully built 6-foot-2, 220-pound body, Jones should be one hot free agent.

In a league where teams are searching for safeties who can run, he is just that. With many offenses spreading out defenses by using three- and four-receiver sets on early downs, Jones is the perfect safety: He can run, hit and tackle.

"I was the second fastest guy on our team," said Jones. "I was faster than our corners. That has to be worth something for teams looking for speed on defense."

Tampa Bay won a Super Bowl less than a month ago with a defense predicated on speed. Teams will attempt to copy that, which is why Jones will have so much value, even though he was considered the second-best safety on the Patriots roster behind Pro Bowl strong safety Lawyer Milloy.

Milloy, though, doesn't run like Jones, who was timed at 4.27 coming out of Syracuse.

"You better have guys who can run in your back four," said one NFC personnel director. "That's what makes (Jones) so attractive. There aren't a lot of safeties that run like he does."

The Patriots would love to have Jones back. But they are projected to be slightly over the cap when free agency opens, which might hurt those chances. They have talked with agent Gary Wichard about a new contract, but the sides are far apart. New England could opt to place a franchise tag on Jones, which would count $3.043 million against the cap until he signs a new deal.

That is a relatively cheap number for a quality, starting player, if they could work it into their cap structure. Milloy will have a cap number of $5.857 million, which means a franchise number of $3 million would put the Pats at just over $8.5 million in cap room for two safeties. That's pretty hefty.

"I'd like to go back, but business is business," said Jones. "I know they have to do what they have to do and I have to do what's best for me. I hope they don't franchise me. That wouldn't be a good thing. I won't take part in anything. But I am one of those guys who works out all the time, so I'll still be in shape. They're lucky about that."

If the Pats allow Jones to hit the market, several teams will be there waiting. According to a league source, several teams have already targeted Jones as a potential "hot" free agent.

"I'm 27, but I feel like 21," said Jones. "I'm not as beat up as some of those other guys."

The Patriots drafted Jones in the first round of the 1998 draft with the idea he would be a starting corner. After two seasons as a reserve corner, he was moved to free safety. Jones started nine games that season, 12 in 2001 as the Pats won the Super Bowl, and 12 again in 2002. He missed two games last season with a quadriceps injury he suffered Nov. 17 against the Raiders.

That injury was to have kept him out 6-8 weeks, but he was back on the field three weeks later, although he started just one of the final four games.

The Pats went with veteran Victor Green as the starter, with Jones sharing time with Green. Part of that reasoning was that Jones was such a valuable special teams player -- a decision that surprised at least one team looking hard at Jones.

"It didn't make any sense," said the personnel man from that team. "Special teams are important. But he should have been on the field on defense." "They thought I was the best gunner on the team, so they'd give me breaks after covering punts," said Jones. "Sometimes it would be a series or a couple of plays. It's not what I wanted, but I knew what was good for the team. But I definitely would rather be a full-time safety."

Jones can play both safety spots, and could play corner in a pinch. With his ability to cover, he said he often found himself matched with receivers in man coverage. There are few safeties who can handle that responsibility. Mostly that's a mismatch for the offense, which is why there are more spread formations for offenses on early downs.

"It must be something in our genes because my whole family can run," said Jones. "I know that gives me an edge on a lot of guys."

Certainly it's an edge on a lot of players in this market. Safeties who can run like corners will soon be the wave of the future. Those slow-footed, big-hitting safeties may find their way onto highlight shows, but offensive coordinators have a way of finding them as liabilities in coverage.

If a personnel man looking for safety help is smart, Jones should be their top target. Safeties don't get the same type of value as corners in terms of contracts, but with more and more being forced to play in coverage, that may start to change.

Jones' speed separates him from most other safeties. It's what helps make him the ideal free agent.

iceshack149 07-20-2003 02:13 PM

Tebucky Jones Article
Great article, Billy. I share your enthusiasm about this years defense. It may not be as good as some but the Saints have certainly made some good moves this offseason to improve on last years defense.

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