The Green Bay Packers used their first-round pick on Datone Jones in 2013 with the expectation that he’d become an every-down defensive end, as capable of beating up on an offensive lineman to stop a running play as he was of beating up on opposing quarterbacks.
That, of course, didn’t happen. With three starts and six sacks in his first two-and-a-half seasons, Jones had become little more than a role player. First-round picks aren’t supposed to be role players. So, by the middle of last season, it was on to Plan B in trying to create a larger role for Jones.
“We wanted to look at Datone rushing from the outside,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers recalled on Sunday. “He had been primarily an inside player, an inside rusher. We liked his size, his ability to be physical coming off the edge.”
Unlike Plan A, Plan B is showing some potential. Even while learning a new position on the fly, Jones became a valuable contributor down the stretch last season. Jones has embraced his new role while being coached the finer points of outside linebacker play throughout the offseason and the first three weeks of training camp. Against Cleveland on Friday night, Jones had one sack and one hurry in 21 snaps.
“I thought Datone really played well,” linebackers coach Winston Moss said on Sunday. “I think that Datone has showed some growth in being able to consistently play in all three phases. I think he did some really good things versus the run, setting the edge, really being physical. I think he did a real good job on one of the times he had a pass responsibility, working really good technique, and I thought he really showed something from an athletic and versatile standpoint of rushing the passer.”
During the second half of last season, Jones played outside linebacker. Now, Jones is feeling more like an outside linebacker and more comfortable in a standup role and all of the duties demanded at the position.
“For me, the coaches challenged me a lot with the position move,” Jones said after Friday’s game. “It has not been peaches and cream for me. It’s been a crazy learning curve and I really have to sit myself down and challenge myself as a pro to learn the position and understand coverages and understand personnels and what I’m seeing and how to approach and attack a guy. I’m learning. I’m learning every day. I’m not there yet. I just need to keep working.”
It helps that Jones has had the right attitude. Before, he had almost no role in the base defense and had to settle for snaps as an interior rusher on passing downs. During the first seven games, he averaged about 19 snaps per game and never more than 31 percent in a game. During the final nine games, that went up to 26 per game, with at least 41 percent in eight games. To adapt, he trimmed down from 298 pounds to 284. Jones has plenty of power to stop the run at outside linebacker in the base defense while retaining his third-down pass-rushing role.
“I didn’t mind,” Jones said. “I wasn’t starting, so wherever the coaches needed me, I just wanted to show them I wasn’t going to back down from the challenge and I was only going to challenge myself to learn the position. I’m not a guy that just likes to be out there on the field. I like to be out on the field and making plays. I hate that feeling of a game being over and I didn’t feel like I did anything. I really tried to challenge myself and push myself and challenge myself to become a factor for this team. I’ve been working hard every day. The younger guys are challenging me, the older guys are challenging me, the coaches are challenging me. I’m trying to step up to the plate.”
Jones did that vs. Cleveland. On his pressure, he used his brute power to drive the right tackle into the face of the quarterback to force an incompletion. On the sack, he used his quickness to avoid the blocker and take down the quarterback.
“You’ve got to be able to go from speed to power,” Jones said. “You’ve got to have a curveball and a fastball and a changeup. As a pass rusher, you’re kind of like a pitcher. You can’t just come with the same pitch every time or someone’s going to hit a home run on you. Or, in my case, if I do the same thing, I’m going to get pancaked. For me, it’s keeping the offensive lineman on his toes and going in and defusing that bomb before it explodes. I take that as a challenge.”
Moss called it a “great start” for Jones. Now, the challenge is to avoid the “ebbs and flows” and perform consistently at one of the team’s deepest positions.
If he can do that, it would provide a dramatic reversal in his career fortunes. Before the change last season, Jones was a borderline bust — not a completely wasted pick but hardly an impact player. Now, Jones could make himself an integral part of the future at a position in which Jones, Nick Perry and Julius Peppers will be free agents at the end of the season.
The future, however, isn’t on Jones’ mind. There’s a position to master.
“I take it a day at a time,” he said. “I still got to play this season and get through the season healthy. It’s an honor for me to learn from a Hall of Famer (like Peppers), I tell you that. He’s working with me a lot and he’s pushing me at practice and I’m just trying to pick his brain as much as I can, so hopefully when he’s done playing I can pick up a little bit of that magic he’s got so I can get to the quarterback.”
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.