"Making the Cut"
As the Arizona Cardinals begin their quest to cut the team's roster size from 90 to 53 by the end of the preseason, we're taking a look at the key players at each position group and determining their odds of making the final cut.
Player: Chandler Jones
Experience: 5th NFL season
Contract status: 2016-$7,779,000
2015 season quick review: Jones spent the 2015 season with the New England Patriots where he enjoyed a monster year of production that amounted to 44 tackles, 12.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and even an interception. The production wasn't out of the ordinary for the Syracuse product who has recorded at least 6.0 sacks in each of his first four NFL seasons. Still, 2015 marked the best statistical season of Jones' career and proved he belongs in the discussion of the NFL's elite pass rushers.
Projected roster status: Jones was acquired to bolster the Cardinals' pass rush which ranked 20th in the NFL last season in sacks and stands to lose its leading pass rusher in Dwight Freeney. Barring any unforeseen circumstances like an injury or a suspension, Jones is guaranteed a roster spot this season as the Cardinals are counting on him to enjoy another stellar season in a critical contract year.
Projected depth chart status: Though the Cardinals list players like Freeney and Jones as outside linebackers, there's very little chance Jones would wind up in coverage. The team runs a 3-4 scheme, but frequently lines up its weak side linebacker at the line of scrimmage with his hand in the dirt and this is the role we expect Jones to play most often. Jones is unquestionably Arizona's No. 1 pass rusher, so his position on the depth chart is solidified in that regard. With New England, Jones actually rotated a bit to different positions along the defensive line as the Patriots capitalized on his versatility, and we think Arizona could do the same this season. Jones' primary responsibility will be lining up on the weak side of the line and rushing the passer, but there's a number of ways a defensive coordinator can deploy a 6-foot-5, 265-pound athlete and we anticipate Cardinals' coordinator James Bettcher will get creative.
Position group analysis: When NFL fans think of Chandler Jones, they think of one of the best pass rushing defensive ends in the game. This is exactly what they think of when they see Dwight Freeney's name as well, which is why Freeney's designation and Jones' designation as "outside linebackers" with the Cardinals may seem odd. However, Jones' role as an outside linebacker is far different from that of a player like Markus Golden, who will drop into coverage from time to time for the Cardinals. Because the Cardinals play with three true defensive linemen instead of four, a pure edge rusher like Jones is labeled as an outside linebacker. While Jones may play as a stand up outside backer more often than he has in the past, there's no disguising what is expected of him. Jones has the luxury of focusing on sealing the edge on run plays and getting after the quarterback on pass plays, while the team's other outside backers will likely have more responsibilities. So though Jones is labeled as an outside linebacker, he's really in a class of his own on the Cardinals' roster.
Moving forward: One of the more intriguing subplots of the Cardinals' season this year is how Jones performs and whether or not general manager Steve Keim will be able to convince Jones to sign a contract extension with the organization. One of the reasons the Patriots were likely willing to part with Jones via a trade is the fact Jones is entering a contract season and will be in line for a top-of-the-industry contract beginning in 2017. If Jones records another season with at least 10.0 sacks, it will mark the third time in his five-year career he will have reached the double-digit plateau. We anticipate writing much more about the Cardinals' expiring contracts during the team's training camp, but to simplify things, Jones can likely expect an offer of a base salary of at least $10 million annually for the next four to five seasons. Jones is already making close to $8 million, so it may not appear like a big jump in annual income, but the key phrase is "at least." While Jones still has room to grow to work into the Von Miller/J.J. Watt price range, it's conceivable another double-digit sack season could allow Jones to ask for about $12 million annually. At that point, the Cardinals will have plenty of different options to consider because so many key defensive players have expiring contracts, so it's hard to say whether Jones will be a priority this offseason if his contract demands become too much for Arizona's budget.
Overall value: At Jones' current salary, the former Patriot's contract represents what amounts to a relatively fair deal for both the player and the team. Jones is still one of the 10 highest-paid outside linebackers in the league (although there are other edge rushers designated as "defensive ends" making more money), but he hasn't yet recorded back-to-back seasons of at least 10.0 sacks. Few analysts questions Jones' pass rushing abilities, but he'll likely need another strong season to remain in the discussion of the NFL's most consistent pass rushers. The Cardinals brought Jones in with the expectation he would be able to deliver production on par with the league's best players, and if Jones lives up to expectations, Arizona won't mind paying his hefty salary. One important factor to consider in Jones' value to the franchise, though, is what the team gave up to get him. If Jones' production helps lead Arizona to a Super Bowl, the Cardinals will obviously consider the trade with New England a success. But if Jones doesn't provide Arizona with consistency and ends up signing elsewhere next season, the Cardinals paid a hefty price in giving up a second round draft pick for a one-year rental. Jones' value to the franchise will be determined over the course of the season, but it's important to remember his acquisition and subsequent contract situation make his value as a player more difficult to assess.