The Green Bay Packers declined the fifth-year option on 2013 first-round pick Datone Jones’ rookie contract this offseason, making him a free agent at the conclusion of the upcoming 2016 season.
Jones is in the midst of a position switch, of sorts, with the expectation being that he will be a full time elephant pass rusher as opposed to splitting time between that and a 3-4 defensive end.
He is also in the midst of transforming his body to be better suited to compete at that new position. Jones told reporters when the team gathered for OTAs last week that he had lost weight, cut wheat and pasta out of his diet and he joked about having a six pack. At least we think he is joking. Then again, he’s pretty much hit the genetic lottery in terms of size is concerned, so none of us should be surprised if he is sporting shredded abs at 270 lbs.
Regardless, things are changing for Jones, including an increased role in Dom Capers’ defense, a scheme so similar to that of UCLA that when Jones was drafted, the learning curve he faced was far less rigorous than that of other rookies. It’s probably, in part, why Ted Thompson went back to the Bruins well for this year’s first-round pick Kenny Clark, who is expected to contribute immediately on a Packers defensive line that is perhaps the thinnest position group on the roster.
Knowing these things and feeling that entering year four, Jones seems to be finding his niche in the defense, is it fair to question what took so long? Why has Jones take four years to be a bigger part of the equation?
Well, it’s always hard to question how coaches allocate playing time, given that they are armed with more information than any of the analyst, expert, journalist types. After all, they are making these decisions for very specific reasons. They are all-seeing, where we see only 16 games per season, with at least one extra in January because we’re spoiled and have hit the quarterback lottery much like Jones has the genetic one.
But it isn’t as if Jones’ pass rush ability was a secret when he was drafted. In fact, part of him becoming a Packer was probably related to the “we haven’t had an interior pass rush since Cullen Jenkins helped us win the Super Bowl” narrative perpetuated by any and every fan, regardless of whether or not Jenkins was even that good. Enter Mike Daniels. Jenkins is long forgotten.
At the time, though, that was somewhat of a fair criticism. As was that of the Packers’ failure to develop any type of pass rush opposite of Clay Matthews, which necessitated Thompson making an uncharacteristic splash signing when he inked Julius Peppers in 2014.
There are always other factors when it comes to a large investment player living mostly in the background while others like Mike Neal and Nick Perry get a greater chance to shine center stage.
Jones has spent his fair share of time on the injury report, including right out of the gate in the team’s 2013 training camp, his rookie year, when he injured his ankle.
He also suffered an ankle injury in 2014, which either kept him out of or limited his use in games for five weeks midway through the season.
In 2015 though, a relatively healthy year for Jones until the very end when he suffered a neck injury in the Packers final regular season game, we saw what might have been the best glimpse at what Jones’ ceiling could be as a pass rusher.
He rushed frequently from the outside as a linebacker in the Packers 30-13 win at Minnesota in November, logging two sacks.
Granted, the Vikings offensive line was abysmal. I mean, really bad. Like, take Bridgewater out of the game to save him from injury bad. But hey, when you’re competing for a division, you can’t pull your guy so they left him in there for Jones and the rest of the Packers to feast on.
Now, one game is not a fair sample size. And this isn’t to make the claim of “Hey! Remember Jones against Minnesota? More of that, please!”
It’s more a curiosity that has always existed about what Jones could be outside and why moving him out there took four years. From before he even played in a regular season game in Green Bay.
In his rookie season, he was more of a depth player. B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett started all 16 games on the defensive front, and Johnny Jolly started 13 alongside them. Outside, Matthews missed time with injury and started 11 games that year, while Neal, Perry and Andy Mulumba picked up the slack cumulatively.
With healthy interior defensive linemen and a rotating cast of characters outside, the Packers just barely toyed with Jones as an edge rusher.
Then came Peppers, eliminating the need for an outside presence opposite of Matthews who would eventually move inside and give way to the Neal/Perry platoon that can only be described as “adequate”.
Again, coaches are watching hours and hours of film. They’re picking apart a player’s technique with a fine-toothed comb. It may very well be that Jones just couldn’t be trusted to be a full-time outside linebacker or that Neal and Perry were just flat out better in that spot.
But with Neal walking away without an offer from the Packers in free agency, the door is finally open for Jones to emerge into a vital part of Capers’ pass rushing scheme.
But for a first-round pick from a familiar defense with a ridiculous frame and supposed sky-high potential athletically, I’m only wondering why the door hadn’t been opened earlier.
Regardless, he’ll have ample opportunity to earn a longer stay in Green Bay despite his option being declined, much like Perry did after his fifth-year option was also declined, leading to his signing a one-year, $5 million free agent deal to remain in Green Bay last March.