Let’s be honest about two things regarding Datone Jones.
One, if the 2013 first-round pick had lived up to expectations at defensive end, the Green Bay Packers wouldn’t have moved him to the elephant position.
Two, if Jones had lived up to that first-round hype, the Packers would have picked up the fifth-year option on his rookie deal.
Instead, Jones enters the 2016 season with contractual and positional uncertainty.
“The way I take it is, they are looking for me to show up,” Jones said following last Tuesday’s organized team activity. “It’s a challenge, and I have to go out there and execute.”
It’s something Jones hasn’t always done. As a rookie in 2013, Jones had 19 tackles in 16 games. He started three of the first five games in 2014, then missed three games with an ankle injury and fell behind Josh Boyd in the rotation.
Last season, he was suspended for the opener due to a post-NFC Championship arrest. In his first seven games, he averaged merely 19 snaps per game. Then came what could be a career-defining decision: The Packers started using him at outside linebacker. In the final eight regular-season games, Jones averaged 30 snaps per game. Of that, 121 came at outside linebacker — 15.1 per game — according to Pro Football Focus.
“I think he’s kind of found his niche here and I think this is the right position for him,” coach Mike McCarthy said.
Jones certainly produced in his new role. Of his three sacks and 25 tackles last season, two sacks and 15 tackles came during his new, expanded role. That’s impressive considering Jones had to learn his new gig on the fly. Now, he’ll have the offseason, training camp and preseason to prepare.
“I thought he did a good job with the repetitions that he had last year,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “You saw him make some plays once we moved him back outside. I think this time that we have right now is really valuable to Datone because he’s getting a chance to work on things you don’t get a chance to work on when you’re in-season, when you have to make that transition from one week to another and you only have three days of practice. We think that he can still slide inside and rush if we need him to rush inside, but we think he’s a physical guy who can set the edge in the run game and win the physical battle on people and yet give us a good, physical rusher off the edge. I don’t think you can have enough of those guys.”
Jones was listed at 6-foot-4 and 285 pounds last season and still is listed at that height and weight. In reality, Capers said Jones weighs in the “high 270s.” At that weight, he’s a bit more athletic but still packs the physical punch to make life miserable for offensive tackles or tight ends trying to block him in the run game.
“I’ve got a six-pack,” Jones said with a laugh.
Jones is part of what looks like an extremely diverse and talented outside linebacker corps, with Jones, Julius Peppers and Nick Perry at the elephant position and Clay Matthews, Jayrone Elliott and rookie Kyler Fackrell playing the more traditional 3-4 outside linebacker role. That gives Capers the ability to mix and match his personnel based on matchups and keep the 36-year-old Peppers as fresh as possible.
“You can't get short with those guys outside,” Capers said. “You've got to be cautious not to overplay Julius because we want to be at our best when our best is needed. And I think the last two years, if you look at us, for a number of reasons, but because we played a lot of young guys, I think you've seen us ascend and play some of our best football the last two or three games and into the playoffs. I think it enables us to keep guys fresh outside, which is an important position in terms of being able to rush.
“We'll have some guys that are very physical there, that we can rotate through, with a Julius Peppers, a Datone, a Nick Perry. We've got some different ways that we can go in terms of rotation. Plus, when you get into third down and these definite passing situations, you might have all of those guys out there because you want to have as athletic a group (as you can) that can run and chase the quarterback down and create problems in terms of matchups.”
Will this finally be the year that Jones provides the impact expected from a first-round pick? His career in Green Bay depends on it. At season’s end, he’ll be a free agent. So, too, will fellow elephants Peppers and Perry. If Jones delivers, he could be a marquee member of this defense for years to come.
“I don’t really get into that,” Jones said of his contract. “I feel like you have to prove it, no matter what. You have to prove it to whoever. I am excited.”
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.