The road to the pros isn’t always a straight path. That’s been the case for Ball State cornerback Nic Jones, who had to earn back his starting role in 2022 after suffering a season-long injury the season before.
Jones was an early contributor at the corner position as a nickel back in 2019 as a true freshman, playing in 11 games and starting two. 2020 saw a reduced role for Jones, who played primarily special teams in Ball State’s title run. He would once again get the chance to earn a starting role in 2021, notching 17 tackles, three pass break-ups and an interception in four games before suffering a season-ending injury.
With his back against the wall and needing to get better while being unable to play on the field, Jones took a different tack in the offseason and studied up on film and technique. It worked out for him, as he played in all 12 games and turned in a second-team all-MAC campaign at defensive back, with 23 tackles, 12 pass break-ups and two interceptions on the season.
His performance in 2022 put him from the smattering of dime-a-dozen UDFA prospects to on the Top 300 big board, with projections putting him anywhere from Round 3 to Round 7 depending on how his skills project to whoever picks him.
The Detroit, Michigan native is an intriguing prospect who offers a lot of potential upside with a floor based on the fundamentals which can keep you atop the 53-man bubble.
The first thing to know about Jones is that he’s a long corner despite his size; though he stands at five-foot-11, 189 lbs., his arms measure at 32 and three-eighth inches, with 10-inch hands. He’s able to utilize his length to his advantage, attacking opponents early in the route and using his positioning downfield to keep himself in the fight.
Jones has a varied background in terms of experience; he can play in two phases (special teams and defense), while also hailing experience at both the nickel and outside corner spots over three seasons. His zone/man splits are about even in college, but he was especially impressive in press coverage and playing the ball on short and medium routes.
Jones will also likely be an immediate contributor in all four sets of special teams units, with experience in kickoffs, punt blocks/returns and field goal blocks.
Primarily, we’ll focus on his defensive snaps for the sake of this profile— though it should be noted that Jones has notched a block each on punt and field goal units.
Here in practice film against South Carolina State WR Shaquan Davis, Jones gets his arms out to contain Davis on the initial route, then spies the backfield to read the quarterback’s eyes before generating closing speed to break up the pass. It’s impressive, considering Jones gives up five inches in the matchup.
Jones can be beat on pure speed against some of the better X receivers, but his sheer length and wit can keep him in plays. Here against likely Day 2 pick Cedric Tillman, Jones gets beat on the initial route, but is able to position himself with great placement, forcing Tillman out of bounds by playing the ball.
Ball State’s Nic Jones with patient feet in press against Cedric Tillman and does a good job staying in phase and disrupting the catch point.— Bobby Football (@Rob__Paul) February 24, 2023
Jones is one of my fav sleepers in the 2023 NFL Draft. Opened a lot of eyes at the @ShrineBowl with his footwork. pic.twitter.com/1F9pAFiy9g
A similar situation occurs here, as Jones shows some open hips on initial burst, allowing the receiver to get through his route— but is still able to stick to the play and once again jumps the route before the receiver can anticipate his being there, showing off excellent ball skills.
This move of his was a particular favorite; he pulled it off several times during both the practice and game sessions of the East-West Shrine Bowl, as seen on this pass break-up.
Ball State CB Nic Jones with the speed turn to knock the pass away pic.twitter.com/veFpr2uVCN— Billy M (@BillyM_91) February 3, 2023
Jones will likely slot into the NFL as a press-heavy zone corner if he sees the field on defense, as his speed isn’t quite enough for deep routes on the outside, but his ball skills are good enough where it might not be an immediate issue. On his highlight interception, Jones jams the receiver at the top of the route, then sits in the zone and spies Fordham QB Tim DeMorat, eventually jumping the flat route and returning it for a decent gain.
There are still a few questions about Jones at other parts of being such a specific type of defensive back. He is not a polished tackler; receivers can usually worm their way out of his wrap tackles at speed. Jones is also not much in the way of a run defender— which is vital to survive as a nickel at the pro level.
Here, we can see a run support rep. Jones reads the play at the line and interprets a screen to the slot receiver, communicating with the safety to swap assignments. It’s a good job of acting straight-up pre-snap, but once the play is a go, Jones is out of the running to get the ballcarrier. The instinct he showed is good to have, but he will need a lot of work in this department to be functional at the pro level, especially with the prevalence of run-pass option in recent years.
What Jones will ultimately bring to the team which selects him is a physical, handsy player with good size and length who can play multiple positions on the defensive and special teams units right away. Jones is a smart, instinctual cornerback who despite his limitations, still has great developmental upside.
Part of why he falls to Day 3 is because he just doesn’t have the in-game experience of many other corners in what’s considered one of the deeper draft classes at the position in recent years. Jones only crossed 300 defensive snaps once (2022), and when he got that playing time, was tagged for five penalties. His five-foot-11, 186 lb. frame is also slightly smaller than teams might like, as it limits who he could line up against at the pro level. Will adding weight affect his on-field play adversely? Can he be taught to be aggressive without drawing pass interference calls when the game gets faster? Those are questions teams will have to ask themselves when considering him on the board.
All that said, in the right system, Jones could be a starter-level talent in a press-heavy scheme at nickel if he hits his ceiling, filling in on the outside in a pinch. At the minimum, Jones can be a great special teams ace who could find a niche for several years in that department and be a deep reserve back.