The Green Bay Packers unveiled a wrinkle in their defense late last season against the Seattle Seahawks, when safety Morgan Burnett played just about an entire game from an inside linebacker position.
Part of the change was injury driven – the Packers’ linebackers group was depleted at the time – and, to be fair, Burnett said he was simply playing a dime role in the Packers’ defense. But on the surface, the wrinkle showed the adaptability needed by back-end defenders to keep up with evolving NFL offenses.
Josh Jones could be one of those players.
One of the newest Packers – via a second-round selection (No. 61 overall) Friday night – is listed as a safety but has the size and versatility to play multiple spots like Burnett or departed free agent Micah Hyde did last season.
The big difference, however, is that N.C. State’s Jones might be a better all-around athlete.
“He’s an explosive athlete, he’s got good size so he’s going to be able to come down to the box and do some of those things,” said Packers director of player personnel Brian Gutekunst. “But he’s shown so much coverage ability, as well. He’s just a really versatile player in the back end of our defense.”
One scouting report highlighted Jones as “not just a traits-based safety.” In fact, as a true freshman in 2013, he worked at safety and linebacker. Jones is a big hitter that also has the ball skills and range in coverage. His style of play at times might seem reckless and lack discipline (think a young Nick Collins), but the Packers picked Jones at a position where they already have two solid starters – Burnett and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix – because they see something more in Jones.
“He’s a very good tackler in space and in the box,” said Gutekunst. “He’s one of those guys at N.C. State you’ll see they drop him in there, kind of play a ‘Will’ linebacker and he’ll shoot the gap and take on the big guys inside and has no problem doing that. And when he’s back in the back end and he’s got to get the speed guys, he has no problem with that either. So, I think with Josh, versatility is just, I keep repeating myself here, but that’s the exciting thing for us is the ability that he can do so many things.”
Like the Packers’ first second-round pick, cornerback Kevin King of Washington, he can run like the wind, too. Jones’ 40-time of 4.41 was second-best at the NFL Scouting Combine among safety prospects and just 0.03 behind the fastest cornerback (Jalen Myrick, Minnesota).
“I have great size to play in the box, great speed to play back deep,” said Jones, who recorded eight career interceptions and 32 starts with the Wolfpack. “So I’m just excited to get to work as soon as possible… My best football is ahead of me. I promise you. My best football is ahead of me.”
If there was a turning point to when Jones realized his potential in college, it came between his sophomore (2015) and junior seasons (2016). He failed to capitalize on a strong freshman year (second in the ACC with four interceptions) with a disappointing sophomore year, when he said he failed to take the right “approach to the game.” Specifically, he needed to improve on the mental side. N.C. State coaches saw the effort when he put in extra video work and began to discover the finer details of the game to become a smarter player.
It showed during his redshirt junior season. During spring drills he moved to free safety and was put in more positions to have an impact. He led the team with 109 tackles (with a career-high four for loss) and posted eight pass breakups and three interceptions. In six games, he posted double-digit tackles including two 15-tackle games.
Clearly, he was becoming a sought-after pro prospect. Like Burnett and Clinton-Dix before him. So, he made the jump to the NFL and said he “dropped to his knees” when his name was announced Friday night during the Draft.
For the Packers, who run more sub-packages on defense than base 3-4 formations, he should find a comfortable home.
“I feel like I’m a great football player,” said Jones. “Every player has something to work on. I’m going to continue to just grind away. As soon as I can, I just want to work with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. He’s a proven veteran in this game. I just want to get coached up, learn, pick the brains of him and just go to work and continue to build on my God-given abilities.
“It’s crazy. I’ve been watching Ha Ha a lot. I was watching him before I played this past fall and he gave me a lot of motivation with the way he plays. I respect his game a whole lot. Him being a Pro Bowl safety and playing so great, I’m just so excited that I get an opportunity to play with a guy like that.”