Weighing the Pros and Cons of Jarvis Jones Starting for the Steelers as a Rookie
When an NFL team spends a first-round draft pick on a rookie prospect, the plan is for that player to become a significant part of the team's future.
In many cases, first-round selections are asked to start as a rookie (even quarterbacks, as we have seen in recent years) and most are expected to have an immediate impact in one form or another.
There are exceptions, of course, like in Pittsburgh, where rookie players are typically worked into the starting lineup over a period of time.
This is especially true on the defensive side of the football, where no rookie has earned a starting job since 2001.
This trend could end this season, thanks to the presence of former Georgia star Jarvis Jones.
Jones, taken with the 17th overall pick in April's draft, is expected to be Pittsburgh's pass-rushing outside linebacker of the future.
Jones is expected to compete at right outside linebacker, which was vacated when James Harrison left in free agency.
Starting Jones would be an unusual move for the Steelers, and one that comes with both risks and potential rewards.
Let's take a look at some of the pros and the cons of starting Jones as a rookie this season.
Pro: Jones Can Bring the Heat
Jones' ability to rush the passer is unquestioned, and this is why the Steelers targeted him.
Last season, Pittsburgh tied for 15th in the league in sacks with 37. While this is a respectable number, the team would certainly like to do better.
This is where Jones comes in.
In 2012, the consensus All-American led the nation with 14.5 sacks and racked up 28 total sacks over the past two seasons.
The Steelers, by comparison, had two players (James Harrison and Lawrence Timmons) tie for a team lead in sacks with just six. One of those players is no longer with the team.
While the Steelers have built a reputation for creating pressure from multiple positions, the team is looking for a single dominant pass-rusher to lead the charge.
Jones can be that player.
Con: Jones Is Relatively Inexperienced
Before the Steelers look to thrust a player into a permanent starting role, they typically make sure that the player is polished, experienced and ready.
This could be a factor that works against Jones in his inaugural NFL season.
As dominant as Jones was in 2012, it is easy to forget that last season was his first as a full-time starter.
Before being declared ineligible at Southern California as a freshman, Jones saw only limited playing time as a backup and special teams player. He registered just 13 tackles with the Trojans before doctors determined he suffered from spinal stenosis.
After transferring to Georgia and being medically cleared, Jones saw his role expand. He was forced to redshirt the 2010 season due to NCAA regulations, but managed to rack up 70 total tackles and 13.5 sacks as part of the defensive rotation.
While Jones performed extremely well as a starter last season (85 tackles, 14.5 sacks), the Steelers may feel he needs a little seasoning before he earns the role in Pittsburgh.
Pro: Jones Is More Than Just a Pass-Rusher
While Jones does have just one season of starting experience under his belt, it seems he made the most of it by developing into a fairly complete player.
Jones has shown the ability to diagnose plays and meet the ball-carrier at the point of attack, as well as the athleticism to flow to the football and make tackles in the open field.
Of the 85 tackles Jones registered in 2012, 24.5 were for a loss.
The Steelers boasted the league's second-ranked run defense last season, allowing just 90.6 yards per game on the ground.
Jones' ability to be a heavy-hitting run defender fits in perfectly with coordinator Dick LeBeau's vision for the defense and should mean that the rookie won't have to come off the field in short-yardage situations.
Con: Jones Could Be a Liability Early in Pass Coverage
While Jones has shown the ability to rush the passer and stop the run, questions still remain about his ability to cover opposing receivers in passing situations.
This typically wouldn't be an issue for a pass-rusher of Jones' caliber (why take him out of his element?); LeBeau's defense requires the Steelers linebackers to do a little bit of everything, including defending against the pass.
Jones wasn't exactly asked to go up against running backs and tight ends on a regular basis at Georgia, but it appeared to be the only area in which he was lacking. Over the past two seasons, he notched just six passes defended with one interception.
"He's done well in the drops, but, when he was in college, he kind of freelanced a little bit," Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler recently said, via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "We're a little bit more disciplined in terms of what we ask him to do and the technique we ask him to use in the passing game."
To become a truly complete linebacker in Pittsburgh's system, Jones will have to prove that he has both the straight-line speed and the fluidity to play in coverage at the pro level.
Pro: Jones Is a Natural Linebacker
Perhaps the most overlooked characteristic Jones possesses is the fact that he played outside linebacker in college.
This means that unlike many of the top pass-rushers taken in the draft—including the division-rival Browns’ top pick, Barkevious Mingo—Jones will not be asked to switch from defensive end to linebacker in his new system.
"The best thing for him is his background, he played linebacker at Georgia, so he understands concepts as opposed to being a defensive end who doesn't know anything," Butler said, via the Post-Gazette. "He's picked some things up. There's a lot we're throwing at him right now, as we do everybody. He's still learning, but he's learning at a quicker pace than most guys we drafted at that position as a defensive end."
The simple fact that Jones will be playing the same position he did at Georgia should lower his learning curve and make the transition to the pro game that much easier.
Con: Jones Must Learn a Complicated System
Of course, while Jones may already know the outside linebacker position, learning the nuances of playing linebacker in Dick LeBeau's system is another thing altogether.
LeBeau's defense is widely regarded as one of the most complicated and ever-changing systems in the entire league (which is why it is so difficult for offenses to find success against it).
Linebackers in the system are expected to defend the run, drop into coverage, occupy blockers and rush the passer from a variety of positions and utilizing a number of exotic looks and blitz packages.
It is quite a load for a rookie like Jones to master in a single offseason, which could be one of the main reasons no rookie has started for LeBeau since he returned to Pittsburgh in 2004.
Jones' main competition for a starting spot, Jason Worilds, already has three years of experience in LeBeau's system, including 10 starts.
It could be enough to give Worilds a leg up on his rookie competition.
Pro: Jones Has Beaten the Odds Before
Starting as a rookie for the Steelers may be a daunting proposition, but it is hardly the first time Jones has been forced to overcome.
After doctors put an end to his playing career at USC, Jone could have easily given up and taken the spinal stenosis diagnosis as reason enough to quit playing football altogether.
Instead, Jones found a school that would take him, sat out for the mandatory year for transferring and went on to become one of the nation's most feared defenders at Georgia.
Jones' experience should allow him to attack his latest uphill battle with vigor and passion, and you can bet he won't take the opportunity for granted.
Con: Jones Could Still Be an Injury Risk
Jones hasn't let the previous diagnosis of spinal stenosis (or narrowing of the spine) keep him from playing football the past couple of years, but the risks involved undoubtedly caused his fall in the first round of the draft.
According to Bleacher Report's own Dr. Dave Siebert, Jones' condition makes him more susceptible to nerve-related injuries that may cause numbness or temporary paralysis (though his risk for permanent injury doesn't really increase).
If Jones does indeed present a risk of future injury, a fact that has been disputed, it could cause the Steelers to closely monitor his workload and utilize him as more of a situational player, especially early in his career.
Of course, it is important to remember that every NFL player is just one devastating hit or freak accident away from serious injury. Perhaps Pittsburgh will throw Jones into the fire as it would any other player.
Pro and Con: Jones May Have Already Hit His Ceiling
Aside from the medical issue, the other big reason teams may have passed on Jones at the top end of Round 1 is the perception that he has hit his ceiling as an athlete, both in terms of build and ability.
At 6'2" and 245 pounds, Jones isn't too undersized for the outside linebacker position, but scouts have questioned his ability to pack more weight onto his frame.
Many teams have started to look for larger outside linebackers (LaMarr Woodley, for example, is listed at 6'2" and 265 pounds) who can flex to the defensive end position in passing situations.
While several of the draft's top pass-rushing prospects were touted as players with "huge upside," Jones was regarded as a player who may have hit his physical wall.
This could mean that the only way Jones will improve as a player is by gaining experience and learning the mental tricks of the trade, which could take some time.
Of course, this could also be seen as a big reason to go ahead and allow Jones to learn in the trenches while he is still surrounded by seasoned veteran talent.
Players like Woodley, defensive end Brett Keisel and safety Troy Polamalu aren't going to be on the roster forever (LeBeau's tenure as defensive coordinator could be nearing an end as well) and getting Jones in sync with a veteran defense now could pay off in the future.
It is important to remember that Jones finds himself in a very rare position for a Pittsburgh Steelers rookie.
Head coach Mike Tomlin and the rest of the coaching staff will have to make a decision sometime during training camp on whether or not to break a long Pittsburgh tradition of allowing rookies to learn behind veterans.
However, Jones' ability to earn a starting role as a rookie shouldn't be the primary concern for the coaching staff.
The biggest goal should be putting him in position to have the greatest impact.
We have long seen defensive rookies wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks as situational pass-rushers, even when listed as backups (With 14 sacks 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith came within a half sack of tying the all-time rookie record in 2011, despite not starting a single game).
For Pittsburgh's defense to be successful in 2013, the team needs to put the best 11 defenders on the field for each situation.
No matter how many of these situations Jones winds up finding himself in, you can expect that he will find some way to make a difference.