I was like a kid asking for the same gift every Christmas, only to be disappointed when Santa didn’t come through year after year. All I wanted was a pass rusher that can get to the quarterback in under three seconds.
NFL draft after NFL draft, I waited for head coach Bill Belichick to make a pass rusher a priority and go after a premier talent with a first-round pick. Shawn Crable (third round, 2008) couldn’t get the job done and Jermaine Cunningham (second round, 2010) wasn’t producing.
So for the 2012 draft, I had a solution: Select West Virginia’s Bruce Irvin in the second round.
So which team got the better player? Would the Patriots be better off if they got Irvin instead of Jones?
Irvin was a player I had my eye on since he led the Big East in sacks in 2010 with 14. Irvin’s numbers were down in 2011, which lowered his stock entering the 2012 Draft. But I still believed Irvin was a ferocious edge rusher. I didn’t think Irvin forgot how to rush the passer.
And when Irvin participated in the combine, he put on a show. He was a top performer in four of six drills, exhibiting explosiveness, speed and change of direction. Irvin is the definition of what a speed rusher is.
Jones on the other hand, while gifted, didn’t have the jump-off-the-page athleticism that Irvin had. But Jones’ measurables (6'5", 247 pounds, 35” arm length) and potential made desirable. He was a prototypical defensive end and could have the flexibility to play outside linebacker as well.
The one knock on Jones was he needed time to get stronger and develop. But the finished product would be a force on every down because he wasn’t a one-dimensional defender.
Based on the highlight videos, Irvin was more impressive than Jones. Bruce Almighty’s speed around the corner was unreal. And his relentlessness chasing the ball confirmed his competitiveness.
Jones looked solid but wasn’t on Irvin’s level as an athlete. There were other hybrid players that looked better in the brief highlights found online. Whitney Mercilus, Melvin Ingram and Nick Perry arguably were better than Jones, depending on the analysis. NFL.com rated Ingram (90.5), Perry (86.5) and Mercilus (86.0) higher than Jones (84.2).
All the opinions in the world don’t matter when the games are real, though. Five games into the season and Jones has started every game. With 18 tackles, three sacks and two forced fumbles, Jones was named the NFL Defensive Rookie of the month for September.
As for the pass rushers rated higher than Jones, only Perry has any starts with four for the Green Bay Packers. He has 18 tackles and two sacks. Mercilus (four tackles for Houston) and Ingram (nine tackles, forced fumble with San Diego) are situational players.
What it comes down to is fit. New England was a base 3-4 defense for most of Belichick’s tenure. This season, New England plays a base 4-3 under defensive coordinator Matt Patricia while retaining the flexibility to revert back to 3-4 based on the situation. For New England’s defense, Jones is the ideal defensive end.
Jones is a four-down defender, expected to defend the run and pass equally. Jones has to hold the edge on run plays or keep containment against athletic quarterbacks. On passing downs, Jones is free to beat the offensive lineman and get after the quarterback.
Irvin, 6'3" and 248 pounds, doesn’t have the build to anchor the edge against offensive tackles. The talk about Jones needing time to get stronger? He’s up to 260 pounds.
Looking at Irvin and his tantalizing speed, it’s not hard to believe that he would be like San Francisco’s Aldon Smith, who had 14 sacks his rookie year as a situational pass rusher. I could live with that kind of production in limited snaps. But the Patriots wanted someone for more than just passing downs.
Some compare Jones with New York Giants DE Jason Pierre-Paul once Jones reaches his full potential. That might be wishful thinking. A more reasonable comparison would be former Patriot Willie McGinest: stout against the run and an effective pass rusher with double-digit potential.
Based on the move Jones put on Tennessee’s Michael Roos, Jones has the ability to consistently get to the quarterback in under three seconds while fulfilling the other responsibilities Belichick puts on his shoulders.
If both Jones and Irvin were on the board when New England selected, Jones would still be the pick because he fits the expectations of a full-time defensive end unlike the situational Irvin. In the long run Irvin may be the better pass rusher, but Jones should be the better four down defender.
So I’m over my pass rusher Christmas wish. Now I want Zoe Saldana under the Christmas tree on December 25th.
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