Around this time of year, as we turn our attention to the upcoming annual free agent extravaganza, fans and analysts alike can’t help but focus their energies on the top free agents available. With good reason, given the demand for their service and the impact they can bring a team, but it means some of the more intriguing players about to hit the open market don’t get the internet ink they’re due.
One of those men is Jason Jones.
Picked up by the Tennessee Titans with the 54th pick of the 2008 NFL draft, Jones was seen as something of a tweener entering the league. A body type that many felt would see him as more of a fit for an end spot in a 3-4 defensive front, his arrival with the Titans left many wondering whether they would see him play at tackle or end in their 4-3 alignment. Four years later and it’s a question still being asked of the former Eastern Michigan Eagle.
What the Titans Want
When Jeff Fischer ended his tenure as Titans head coach, things were about to change, and no more was that felt than on the Tennessee defensive line. Gone was the proponent of the ‘Wide-9’ defensive line Jim Washburn, and in was Tracy Rocker. The former D-line coach at Auburn combined with new defensive coordinator Jerry Gray to rectify what the Titans saw as one of the biggest weaknesses after a late season slump in 2010; a smallish defensive line that wore down as the season went on.
Weighing 276 pounds coming out of college, Jones was the poster child of what was wrong with this Titans defense. Sure, he could make plays and excelled at getting up field, but against double teams and bigger guards, he found himself missing time hurt, before slowing down over the second half of the season when he saw the field. The solution to this was to try to get Jones in more space, and getting him to work at defensive end, helping the Titans get bigger at two spots with one move. It saw a radical change in how Jones was used from 2010 to 2011 as the below table demonstrates.
|DE (4 man line)||27||400||4.13%||59.17%||55.04%|
|DE (3 man line)||13||30||1.99%||4.44%||2.45%|
|Hand off ground||16||11||2.45%||1.63%||-0.82%|
From seeing 91.42% of snaps at defensive tackle in 2010, Jones’ numbers plummeted to just 34.76% with all bar two of his snaps at defensive tackle coming in nickel and dime defenses. Given how he’s performed at the two positions, it’s easy to see why Jones may not want to return to Tennessee.
Jason Jones – The Defensive End
The consummate pro, Jones responded to a possible move to a defensive end exactly as his team would have hoped; by getting on with it. Had he known what was to follow, he may have been a bit more vocal about a damaging positional change that saw him have a horrid year playing predominantly at the DRE spot. On the year, he finished with our sixth-lowest grade of all 4-3 defensive ends (-9.3), holding up reasonably well, but failing to generate consistent pressure. 178 times he rushed from the defensive end spot and it resulted in just two sacks, three hits, and five hurries. In our Pass Rushing Productivity signature stat, he has a 4.5 PRP rating from the DE spot–a number that would be seventh-lowest of all defensive ends.
You could live with this, to a degree, if Jones was making play after play in the run game. The Seattle Seahawks have had great joy with a player like Red Bryant (+9.0 run defense) and not expected much in return as a pass rusher. The sheer strength and physicality of Bryant lets him push tackles around and redirect runs even if he doesn’t show up big on the stat sheet (though 17 defensive stops in the run game isn’t anything to turn your nose up at). Jones, a more explosive player, isn’t that type of run defender, grading positively on just 26 run plays all year (compared to 52 for Bryant) while only picking up nine defensive stops.
Simply put, Jason Jones the defensive end doesn’t do a whole lot of anything. And if you’ve seen him play tackle, you know that’s an almighty waste of talent.
Jason Jones – The Defensive Tackle
When lined up inside, the sheer speed of Jones has caused plenty of issues for offensive linemen trying to slow him down. You only need to look at the table below which shows how much pressure Jones has picked up and where that ranks him (for the year) amongst all defensive tackles.
The most impressive performance was in 2010 where Jones held down an every-down role, seeing his most extensive action in the NFL. His ability to constantly generate pressure was often overlooked in favor of defensive tackles who picked up more sacks. But if you compare Jones with top players like Ndamukong Suh (+6.2) or B.J. Raji (+5.8), you get an idea of just how good he was and why NFL teams should be queuing up to return him to the DT spot as he picked up more pressure on a per snap basis than both men.
It’s not just what he can do in terms of getting to the quarterback. While he excels getting up field and causing havoc in the passing game, he’s no slouch against the run. Sure he struggled to make impact plays at end, but while plenty of tackles struggle playing the DT spot in the Wide-9 scheme, Jones flourished. His discipline and ability to react to plays served him well as he finished 10th among all defensive tackles by causing a defensive stop on 10% of plays in run defense. His all-around play earned him the sixth spot in our DT rankings for the 2010 season, despite missing time due to injury.
The Durability Concern
Therein lies part of the problem with Jones. Playing at defensive tackle, it seemed that he was more susceptible to injury, wearing down as the season went on. This was most evident in 2010 when Jones started off the season as hot as any DT in the league. His displays against Pittsburgh (Week 2) and Denver (Week 4) were incredible, but his second half of the season after the Titans’ Week 9 bye was–outside of his Week 16 showing versus Kansas City–disjointed at best. Tennessee’s poor form can’t have helped, but Jones went from wreaking havoc to just about getting by after leaving the home contest with the Washington Redskins after two snaps.
Any team looking at Jones will note that he’s missed action every year, most notably in 2009 where he only suited up for seven games. So while he has succeeded at the defensive tackle spot, it has to be something of a concern that as talented as he is, there’s no evidence to suggest he can maintain a high level of play throughout an entire season. He’s just not the Ndamukong Suh type of tackle who can play 80% of a teams’ snaps over the course of the season and produce at the same level.
What the Market Looks Like
That durability concern does make signing Jason Jones something of a risk, but managed correctly, teams should be able to get the best out of him. We’ve seen players like John Abraham go from being constantly banged up to being a constant nuisance when the Atlanta Falcons started to manage his snaps. Jones is a player who benefits from a heavy rotation and by averaging 664.5 snaps over the past two years, shows he is capable of holding up to that share. He may not suit a team that likes their defensive tackles on the field every down, but there are plenty of teams committed to substituting their interior defensive line regularly.
With that in mind, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see an inflated market for a 25-year-old with huge upside. Even though he struggled to rush the passer in 2011, sucking one up for the team and playing out of position is likely to earn him a pass on that as teams instead focus on what he was able to do in 2010. The kind of explosiveness to get up field coupled with his ability to react to plays and get off blocks is extremely rare for a defensive tackle, and defenses love players like that who can contribute in any situation. Factor in his age and teams are looking at a player who could possibly deliver at a high level for a number of years. We saw last year the kind of deal that one of the most productive interior pass rushers in the NFL, Cullen Jenkins, received as the Eagles paid the former Packer $30.75m over five years, and Jones is a player who has it in him to have a similar impact as our third-ranked pass-rushing DT did in 2011.
Where Should he Go?
Of course Jenkins thrived in the same scheme Jones had his success in–the Wide-9 employed by defensive line coach Jim Washburn. A reunion with Washburn makes a lot of sense, but having invested in the defensive line last year, the Eagles seem to have bigger needs than targeting what could amount to a luxury player. More obvious links have Jones and the St Louis Rams hooking up with Jeff Fisher the newly installed head coach, but the NFL’s second-worst team actually got decent play out of their defensive line and may be more concerned with finding a new defensive coordinator after Gregg Williams’ bounty scandal plays out.
So while the Rams and Eagles may seem the most logical given on who has previously got the best out of Jason Jones, there are teams out there who need a one-gap defensive linemen like Jones more. Take the Indianapolis Colts and Miami Dolphins for example. Both teams have some question marks about what schemes they may employ with conventional wisdom leaning to both using a 4-3 or some sort of hybrid. The Colts lack any defensive tackle on their roster that can get up field, and the Dolphins could be about to say goodbye to three of their defensive linemen through free agency as a new defensive coordinator freshens things up. The Colts and Dolphins represent just two teams who could use a player like Jason Jones, but you could count countless more because talents his talents are all too rare–something NFL executives know all too well.
Saying Goodbye to Tennessee
Indeed, the Titans are one team themselves who–despite how poorly he played last year–don’t want to let Jones leave. Rumors have come out suggesting they had offered him a deal and were considering franchise tagging him, but you have to ask the question why. They themselves are now well stocked at the defensive tackle position after superb rookie years from Jurrell Casey (+13.5) and Karl Klug (+7.3), and there’s been nothing to suggest they would move Jones back to the DT spot. They only need to look at his last two years to see how wasted he is at DE as the table below shows.
Pass Rushing Productivity
Run Stop %
So while it’s hard to move on at times, this is one of those instances where it really is in the best interests of both parties. The Titans want big defensive linemen like Casey and Shaun Smith, with the smaller guys like Klug doing their work in their sub package defenses. Jones has proven to be worth more than that and likely will be wherever he ends up.
Every year there are players who get more money than you expect them to receive, and when free agency 2012 is said and done, there’s every possibility that Jason Jones will be one of those players. The evidence is there for any personnel man to see.