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Baltimore native Cyrus Jones finally feels his feet under him in second season with Ravens

Ravens cornerback Cyrus Jones (27) celebrates his interception on a pass from Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Tanner Lee with teammates, including defensive back DeShon Elliott (32), during the second half of an NFL preseason game, Thursday, Aug. 8, 2019, in Baltimore.
Ravens cornerback Cyrus Jones (27) celebrates his interception on a pass from Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Tanner Lee with teammates, including defensive back DeShon Elliott (32), during the second half of an NFL preseason game, Thursday, Aug. 8, 2019, in Baltimore. (Nick Wass/AP)

Cyrus Jones can hardly remember the last time he felt secure with his role on a football team.

It’s strange to say of a former multiyear starter at Alabama and one of the most gifted players to emerge from Biff Poggi’s Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association powerhouse at Gilman. But between rookie-year disappointments, a season-ending injury and a series of roster jumps, the NFL machine has tossed Jones head over heels since he was drafted in 2016.

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Only now, in his second season with the Ravens, does the Baltimore native finally feel his feet back under him.

“I can say I feel really, really good about where I am versus the past couple years,” Jones said recently.

Jones played an underappreciated role in the Ravens’ resurgence last year with his excellent performance as a punt returner. It wasn’t clear if that would be enough to keep him on the roster, but his spot is looking more secure given the team’s increasing dependence on his defensive skills.

Jones did not revel in hearing that the Ravens’ No. 1 nickel cornerback, Tavon Young, was facing potential season-ending neck surgery. But it’s one of the chief laws of the NFL: one man’s misfortune begets another opportunity.

“Tavon is a great player. I hate seeing what’s going on with him right now, and I’m praying for him, as all of us are,” Jones said. “But, it’s up to the next man to step up, whoever that is. I’m just going to keep going, trying to come out here, practice hard, get better, listen to my coaches, and if I have to go in there and do the job of taking Tavon’s spot, then so be it.”

The 25-year-old Jones had already made an impression in training camp with his assertive play at cornerback, and he doubled down on it by finishing second on the team in tackles in last Thursday’s preseason victory over the Green Bay Packers.

Baltimore Ravens cornerback Cyrus Jones, left, makes a hit on Green Bay Packers quarterback Tim Boyle during the first half of a NFL football preseason game, Thursday, Aug. 15, 2019, in Baltimore.
Baltimore Ravens cornerback Cyrus Jones, left, makes a hit on Green Bay Packers quarterback Tim Boyle during the first half of a NFL football preseason game, Thursday, Aug. 15, 2019, in Baltimore. (Nick Wass/AP)

Three days after the game, Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said Jones would be the team’s first option at nickel cornerback in Young’s absence.

“I’m really pleased with Cyrus,” Martindale said. “I think he had [five] tackles in the game. When you have a nickel that can make [five] tackles, you’re going down the right street.”

Ravens coach John Harbaugh also offered an encouraging appraisal of Jones’ play against the Packers while cautioning that the team has much to sort out at nickel corner.

“He can tell you those things that he’s working on, but he played hard,” Harbaugh said of Jones. “He played smart, generally, and he did a good job. We have a lot of guys. It will be a little bit [of a] different plan if Tavon is not there, in terms of playing more guys in the slot than we would have. We’ll see how that plays out.”

Jones seemed to be graduating from one dynasty to another when the New England Patriots drafted him in the second round out of Alabama in 2016. With his dual abilities as a defensive back and kick returner, he seemed a perfect fit for Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who has built his empire on multifaceted players.

Reality proved far thornier as Jones fumbled five times over the course of his rookie season and became a favorite punching bag for Patriots fans. He was inactive for the team’s entire playoff run.

“I was a part of the team, but I didn’t feel a part of it,” Jones said in February 2017, a few weeks after the Patriots had snatched Super Bowl LI with a wild 25-point comeback.

He intended to use his struggles as fuel for a redemption story, but that didn’t work out either. Jones tore his ACL in the preseason and didn’t play a single snap in 2017. He returned to the Patriots for training camp last year but was waived Sept. 1.

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The Ravens signed Jones two days later and stashed him on their practice squad. Then the Patriots re-signed him Sept. 19, only to waive him once more Oct. 6. The Raven claimed him for good Oct. 8.

If that all sounds confusing, imagine how Jones felt. He didn’t know if he was going or coming. But he saved the Ravens from their early-season difficulties with punt returns, averaging 14.4 yards on 18 attempts and fumbling just once in 2018. He was AFC Special Teams Player of the Week after he returned a punt 70 yards for a touchdown in the Ravens’ 34-17 victory over the Oakland Raiders.

Did that performance earn Jones a secure place on the Ravens’ 53-man roster?

Not really. The team brought in another experienced returner, Tyler Ervin, to compete with him. And Harbaugh offered no guarantee he would use a precious roster spot on one of the two specialists. To make matters worse, Jones missed the team’s offseason workouts with an undisclosed illness.

Baltimore Ravens cornerback Cyrus Jones takes to the field prior to a NFL football preseason game against the Green Bay Packers, Thursday, Aug. 15, 2019, in Baltimore.
Baltimore Ravens cornerback Cyrus Jones takes to the field prior to a NFL football preseason game against the Green Bay Packers, Thursday, Aug. 15, 2019, in Baltimore. (Nick Wass/AP)

But that time proved valuable, even though Jones felt frustrated.

“I guess me just being able to take a step back and watch things, and kind of have another opportunity to adjust to being at a new spot and being in a new culture from where I was, has definitely helped a lot,” he said.

Jones’ return skills garnered him attention in high school and college (he was The Sun’s All-Metro Offensive Player of the Year at Gilman in 2011 and led the NCAA with four punt returns for touchdowns in his senior season at Alabama), but he has considered himself primarily a cornerback since his sophomore year in college.

He played 147 defensive snaps for the Patriots as a rookie compared with 51 on special teams. That equation flipped in 2018, when he played just 15 defensive snaps for the Ravens and Patriots compared with 204 on special teams.

It wasn’t because Jones lost his enthusiasm for defense. As soon as he hit the practice field this summer, he displayed the feisty, confident style that had made him an All-Southeastern Conference defensive back.

It was just that, with a surplus of gifted cornerbacks on hand, the Ravens didn’t have an obvious defensive role to offer the Baltimore native.

That has changed with the injury to Young, who was expected to be an essential part of the secondary after he signed a three-year, $25.8 million extension in the offseason.

Jones brings a slimmer track record as a pro defender, but aspires to the same bold playmaking that distinguished Young.

“I’ve always been an aggressive guy, just coming out there, trying to play as hard as I can, fly around and use my God-given ability,” he said.

He does not take for granted this opportunity to establish himself in his hometown, where he can make a direct impact on younger athletes trying to follow in his footsteps. As the son of former Dunbar basketball coach Cyrus Jones Sr., he’s already tied to a deep Baltimore heritage. Jones has taken to tagging his social media posts with the acronym FINAO, which stands for “failure is not an option.”

“A lot of older guys that I looked up to when I was younger kind of coined that phrase, and as I got older, I kind of stuck with it and eventually kind of made it my own,” he explained. “It’s my motto that I go by, but I think it’s something that everyone can benefit from, especially younger kids, which I definitely try to have an effect on, being in my hometown and playing here.”

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