A number of NFL defensive rookies have been exceptional in 2016.
San Diego's Joey Bosa has lived up to every bit of the hype with seven sacks, 11 quarterback hits and 27 quarterback hurries in just 399 snaps. Bears linebacker Leonard Floyd has transcended the subpar defense around him, amassing seven sacks of his own along with two hits and 26 hurries in 470 snaps. Jacksonville cornerback Jalen Ramsey has been up and down this year, but he's shown every bit of the promise he first displayed at Florida State. Kansas City's Chris Jones has excelled at both end and tackle in Bob Sutton's defense. And nobody has done more with less around him than San Francisco lineman DeForest Buckner.
But through 14 weeks, I'd have to cast my Defensive Rookie of the Year vote for Atlanta Falcons linebacker Deion Jones.
Make no mistake, Jones is just one part of an unbelievable rookie haul on that side of the ball for general manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Dan Quinn. First-round safety Keanu Neal, fourth-round linebacker De'Vondre Campbell and undrafted safety/slot man Brian Poole have all made key contributions. But especially in the second half of the season, Jones has set himself apart with a compelling combination of field awareness, toughness, speed, agility and an overall understanding of the game.
|Deion Jones' Weekly NFL1000 Scores Since Midseason|
On the year, he's put together 69 tackles, 15 assists and 34 stops. In coverage, he's allowed 46 catches on 57 targets for 443 yards and two touchdowns, but also three interceptions—and two of those picks went for touchdowns. Jones first hit the national radar in his third NFL game, when he returned a Drew Brees pass 90 yards for a touchdown, and he's only gotten better over time.
Not bad for a guy who had started just one game going into his 2015 season at LSU, and then went off for a team-high 100 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, 5.0 sacks, six quarterback hurries, two interceptions and one forced fumble in his final collegiate season, per LSU.
When you watch Jones' LSU tape, two things pop out, and they're related. First, Jones did many of the things he's doing now at a very high level. Second, Atlanta's coaching staff understood what he can do and prioritized it over what he's not built to do—something commong among good staffs.
"For Deion Jones, first off, the run-and-hit factor is totally alive," Quinn said in May. "He's an all-downs linebacker for us. Match up, running backs, tight ends. Now, the three-deep (zone) that we play, the ability to close and tackle in space is critical to playing inside 'backer in this spot… you'd better have the ability to close and then get there with some nasty demeanor, and he certainly fits that."
I asked Jerod Brown, our inside linebackers scout on the NFL1000 team, for a more specific analysis of Jones' progress through the season, and what he sees as Jones' pure potential.
When discussing Deion Jones' development, it's important to note just how quickly he's become an above-average defensive starter. When Jones went through the draft process last year, there were no secrets about where and how he might struggle in the NFL. He's relatively undersized for a true inside linebacker and, lacking significant playing time in college, his ability to diagnose efficiently pre- and post-snap was limited.
In a short time, Jones has managed to make incredible strides in these two critical areas, and it is primarily due to the relentless utilization of the strengths that he did enter with. First, Jones is hyper-athletic with an attacking play style that only knows one gear: fast. More often than not, that aggression and play speed has been able to minimize his inexperience and put him in a position to succeed. It was his calling card early in the year.
As the Falcons continue in the thick of a playoff run, Jones has steadily built on that aggression, demonstrating an impressive ability to process what's happening in front of him before putting himself in a position to be successful. What he does once he is in position separates him from most of the other rookie defenders on the field. Jones' last resort is a run-of-the-mill tackle. Everything up to that point is an effort to be a playmaker. He comes with a ball-hawking attitude that is often seen in a defensive secondary, not from an inside linebacker. Whether it's stone-walling someone in gap for a momentum-swinging tackle, tipping a pass for an interception or making an acrobatic one of his own, Jones looks to be a finisher on each and every down.
The battle between spread teams and those that like to run jumbo sets will continue as long as varied body types and athletes enter the league each year. Jones has an advantage over the rest of the young linebacker corps in that his development is happening through live game reps and they're increasingly successful. This isn't some helpless linebacker thrown in the deep end; it's a physically gifted athlete that has found ways to catch his brain up to his body. The combination has allowed an Atlanta defense to capitalize on turnovers and build for the future with Jones as an inside signal-caller.
The knock on Jones will always be his size and whether he can sacrifice some fluidity and athleticism for a few more pounds that might aid him as he takes on mauling guards in the B-gap. Jones' weight will never be much more than the high 220s and, as long as he can continue to develop a strong punch at the point of attack, he shouldn't have to worry about bulking up. While some linebackers win with size, Jones wins with athleticism, balance and the force upon contact that is generated from the speed at which he plays.
I couldn't agree more. Let's go to the tape.
Jones' 33-yard interception return for a touchdown of a Jared Goff pass Sunday in Atlanta's 42-14 thrashing of the Rams was certainly a splash play, and it's a good place to start when discussing his specific attributes. Receiver Kenny Britt (18) is on the outside right, with cornerback Robert Alford (23) playing off-coverage. The plan here—and it shows what kind of trust the Falcons' coaching staff has in Jones' coverage abilities—is for Alford to track Britt if he goes deep, and close in on the shorter stuff. Jones is reading curl/flat coverage to that side, he reads the square-in to Britt, and jumps the route with perfect timing. Meanwhile, safety Brian Poole (34) is following Tavon Austin (11) from the slot. When you have a linebacker who can read and react at this level, it exponentially expands how you can play your cornerbacks—you can start a linebacker like Jones in a run fit look and have him flare out seamlessly. As Quinn said months ago, it's a requirement in Cover 1/Cover 3 base concepts.
Jones also has the kind of closing speed you'd expect to see from a strong or free safety. Here, he shuts down a Goff pass to Austin in the third quarter for a two-yard loss. It's a quick screen to Austin in the right slot, and though tight end Tyler Higbee (89) did a good job blocking Poole out of the play, right guard Andrew Donnal (64) didn't have much of a chance to catch up to Jones, especially since Donnal took the wrong angle in the first place. A 6'6", 316-pound offensive lineman can't afford any wasted movement against someone this quick to the target. Jones has nine missed tackles on the year, but only three in the last six games, and the wrap tackle here assures Austin isn't going anywhere.
As for the negatives? One issue Jones is still working out is biting on play-fakes—a seemingly inevitable side effect for younger players with demon speed. As a Seattle resident, I watched Earl Thomas whiff often early in his NFL career. Eventually, when his angular awareness matched his physical abilities, he became the best safety in the business. Jones is technique-aware, but more experienced quarterbacks will occasionally eat his lunch. Here, against the Chiefs in Week 13, tight end Travis Kelce (87) gets an easy reception up the seam as Jones focuses on running back Spencer Ware.
It's never conclusive to know what a coverage was supposed to be unless you're talking to the coaches and players involved, but given the pre-snap movement and adjustment, the fact that linebacker De'Vondre Campbell (59) moved in to the curl/flat area to ostensibly cover Ware and the clearout by other Falcons defenders to cover away from the seam, it appears to be a breakdown on Jones' part.
But if there's one thing Jones is obviously better at than predraft analysis would have us believe, it's getting his nose in there for run stops. He does this in two ways: First, he'll read gaps like a running back to move around blockers he might have lost to from a physical perspective. This stop of a Ware run in the third quarter is a perfect example. Watch how he moves outside the formation as Ware runs power inside and then closes quickly to make the tackle. This also puts him in an ideal position to stop the run if Ware had chosen to cut outside.
This goal-line stop of Cardinals running back David Johnson in the first quarter of Atlanta's Week 12 win over Arizona shows Jones has a bit more sand in his pants than your average-speed linebacker. Here, he starts in a standard "Mike" position in the end zone and closes quickly to Johnson. But before he can make that stop, he has to move past left guard Mike Iupati (76), one of the league's most powerful players. Iupati is hitting the second level on a chip-block, but Jones stands up with him and blasts through to Iupati's right to keep Johnson out of the end zone.
Iupati outweighs Jones by 110 pounds, so this play has nothing to do with brute strength—it's timing, leverage and speed to power, and it's singularly impressive.
The Goff interception showed Jones' ability to read coverage quickly and react in an assignment-correct fashion. But for pure athletic prowess, it's tough to top this near-interception of a Carson Palmer pass to Michael Floyd in the third quarter. Jones starts by barreling through on a run fit to stop Johnson, but when he realizes it's a pass, he hustles back to take inside coverage on Floyd's deep in route. Jones doesn't get to Floyd in time, but watch the hops on this near-pick. That's the kind of raw speed that allows him to adjust to occasional coverage lapses.
Deion Jones isn't the flashiest guy, but he's flashy enough. He's not the strongest player, but he's strong enough. Everything you want a modern inside linebacker to do, he can do, and he's becoming more consistent as he goes along. He's a special player, and I can't think of a defensive rookie who's been more crucial to his team's success this season.
All advanced statistics via Pro Football Focus unless otherwise noted.