The 2016 NFL draft class looks to be a meat and potatoes-type draft, loaded with talent at the essential positions needed to build a Super Bowl contender. While it’s not as deep with top-tier playmakers like some previous years, there’s an abundance of trench talent to be unearthed. One of the potential future Pro Bowlers on the defensive front is Mississippi State tackle Chris Jones.
The versatile defensive lineman isn’t one of the big names in the 2016 class at this time. According to CBS Sports, Jones is the 74th-ranked prospect. That would put the 6’6”, 310-pounder in the third round if the draft followed its board.
The draft results could end up that way, but Jones has the ingredients of a defensive force in the NFL. The 21-year-old from Houston, Mississippi, came into his own in 2015 as he became an established starter for the Bulldogs. He transformed from raw, athletic freak to a tremendous football player.
Natural talent has never been a question for Jones. A former 5-star recruit, per 247sports, Jones was a rotational player his first two seasons with snaps in all 26 games and three starts. But his inconsistent effort and overall impact on games was lacking.
Midway through 2014, Jones acknowledged he wasn’t where he needed to be, according to Clarion-Ledger reporter Michael Bonner.
I still haven't reached my potential. I just feel like there's so much more I just have to do. I beat myself up a lot because I really haven't played as I expected to play this season. Coaches say I'm doing all right. I'm doing OK. But I expect more out of myself. I watch film, I take my mistakes very seriously. What I could have done on this play instead of that. How could I have changed the play? That's what I look at it.
His self-awareness and commitment to improve paid off in 2015 as he started all 13 games for the Bulldogs. While his 2.5 sacks were actually a career low, he was incredibly disruptive and created countless opportunities for his teammates to finish the play or force a negative play. Those numbers don’t show up in the stat book, but they were evident in each of the six games I watched of Jones.
Pro Football Focus found similar results, grading him as their second-best pass-rushing grade among draft-eligible defensive tackles. According to Michael Renner of Pro Football Focus, Jones did his damage from a variety of alignments, including 609 snaps over the guard, 68 snaps as nose tackle and 83 snaps as an edge-rusher. His versatility will benefit him greatly in the NFL as multi-front schemes can utilize him regardless of situation.
How Jones accomplishes this is what gives him such high upside and promise. While Jones made headlines for his NSFW spill in the 40-yard dash, he actually dominated the combine. According to Mock Draftable, Jones measured better than half the defensive tackle prospects in all but two areas since 1999.
His athleticism comparisons include Leonard Williams, the New York Jets' 2015 first-round pick; Jared Odrick, who scored a $42.5 million deal from the Jacksonville Jaguars last year; Muhammad Wilkerson, who could be in line for a $100 million contract; and two-time Pro Bowl tackle John Henderson.
The first-year starter quickly jumps off the screen when watching the talented Bulldogs defense, which has as many as five NFL draft prospects this year alone. He moves incredibly well for his density, beginning with his explosion off the line. He’s not just a snap-jumper who relies on timing to shoot gaps, which can mask a limited skill set.
Jones’ performance against Missouri in Week 10 was the most dominant individual performance I’ve seen from a prospect this year. It was reminiscent of Henry Anderson’s destruction of Oregon State in 2014. Anderson was a stellar rookie for the Indianapolis Colts last year after being selected in the third round.
Missouri’s interior offensive linemen couldn’t withstand Jones’ powerful hands and change of direction. On plays like the one above, Jones explodes off the snap with a low pad level into the center. He quickly establishes his hands inside the center’s chest then slides his right hand to the shoulder to execute a swim move. The center had no chance as Jones accelerates past him into the pocket, which causes the right guard to dive in a desperate attempt to slow him.
Jones was unable to finish the sack despite his positioning, which is the nagging concern in his game right now. He creates pressure with ease, and that is a huge positive to build off.
Later in the game Jones is able to show off his devastating swim move again and reach the quarterback in a mere 1.4 seconds. This time he aligns over the left guard, who barely gets a hand on Jones. Like before, the 6’6” Jones bursts off the line lower than the blocker. This time he went inside shoulder and got past the guard before the center could ever slide over to help. The play was over before it ever had a chance to succeed.
Jones is more than just a speed interior rusher, though. His ability to dip his hips and explode forward is rare for an athlete his size. He generates power off his speed and can extend his 34 ½” arms to fling blockers away from his frame.
He understands how to use his length well even with limited edge snaps. As with his interior rush wins, Jones shows great extension and constant leg movement. Below he’s aligned as the left defensive end and creates pressure with a bull rush to force the Missouri quarterback to scramble on third-and-long.
I was worried after watching the Missouri game that maybe Jones was just terrorizing linemen six months out of high school, but four of their starters were seniors. That includes legitimate NFL prospects in center Evan Boehm and left tackle Connor McGovern. Although Jones didn’t dominate to the same extent against other top competition like LSU and Texas A&M, there were more positive plays than negative overall.
Continuing with his pass-rush ability for now, Jones was able to get the best of Aggies senior center Mike Matthews on multiple occasions. Jones is very difficult to handle without help on either side because his strength displaces smaller interior blockers and forces them to re-anchor their lower bodies. Failing to properly adjust in a timely manner will allow Jones to keep his shoulders squared, but the blocker will be turned sideways and cannot recover.
His strength translates to the run game as well, especially as a 5-technique. Against LSU he demonstrated the ability to own the triangle on two key plays. His responsibility on the play below is to control the space between the right guard’s outside shoulder to the tackle’s outside shoulder and close any running lanes in that area.
Jones executes perfectly as he flows laterally while double-teamed, but he keeps his base spread enough to avoid a pancake. As running back Leonard Fournette approaches the line, Jones sheds the block from tackle Vadal Alexander and cuts inside to make the tackle on Fournette.
Later we see another example of Jones’ ability to destroy the outside running lane through penetration. This time he’s not concerned with the right tackle, but he needs to crash the outside shoulder of the guard. His quickness off the snap forces the fullback to attack him instead of paving a clear path. Then it was up to his teammates to swallow up the cutback lanes and finish the play.
There were a half-dozen good examples of Jones’ considerable upside throughout the 2015 games I watched, including the clips used thus far. The downside to Jones wasn’t hard to find, even if there’s reason to believe he’ll improve as he gains experience. As mentioned earlier, he really struggled to finish some of his pressures as he’d overpursue or just miss the tackle.
His inability to complete the play is concerning because quality NFL quarterbacks thrive on broken plays. It may not necessarily improve at the next level, but if it does, Jones has the ability to be a Pro Bowl player. He’s that disruptive and athletic.
He’ll also show the bad habits that led to his limited playing time in his first two years. He’ll happily shoot gaps upfield to make the big play. But this can backfire, and offenses will run a delayed handoff or inside zone to take advantage of the lane he created. This is something Los Angeles Rams tackle Aaron Donald has also faced early in his career.
Looking at Chris Jones’ current game and what he can become with more seasoning, he should be a top-20 pick in this class. He’s simply cut from a different athletic cloth than most players his size. His improved understanding of how to take advantage of his traits was the catalyst for his breakout 2015 campaign.
Jones can immediately enter a rotational role in either a 3-4 or 4-3 defensive front, although I like his fit as a 5-technique and occasional nose tackle most. This would allow him to star as a run defender and pass-rusher in multiple alignments.
The Oakland Raiders, Indianapolis Colts and Washington Redskins would be perfect fits in the middle of the first round. If he falls to Day 2 of the draft, he may end up as the biggest steal in the class.
All stats used are from Sports-Reference.com.
Ian Wharton is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.