Through three seasons as a starting cornerback for the Washington Huskies, Sidney Jones never missed a game and showed significant improvement every year. It all came together for him in 2016, as he was the best pure cover corner on one of the NCAA's best defenses and part of a secondary, along with cornerback Kevin King and safety Budda Baker, that boasted three players with first-round NFL draft grades.
And then, on the final defensive back drill of Washington's pro day March 11, everything changed. That's when Jones crumpled to the turf at Washington's Dempsey Indoor practice facility with a torn Achilles tendon. And just like that, the future of a player who locked down opposing offenses in 2016 was in doubt.
Last week, I asked Jones if he thought the injury was serious when it happened.
"I didn't," he said. "I thought I just hurt something, because the pain—it didn't hurt at all. It just felt like a pop. I hit the floor, and I was like, 'What the hell?' I was confused because it didn't hurt. I thought I was going to be OK, and then, when I got inside, the medical staff examined me and said I'd possibly need surgery. That's when the reality hit, when I got that news."
The question now: How severe will the fallout be? Jones had already done his work at the combine, running a 4.47-second 40-yard dash and looking good in the other drills. That, along with his 2016 tape, should put him in reasonably good stead despite the injury.
Jones said his cast was off and that he's starting range-of-motion exercises and looking at a six-month timetable from his March 21 surgery before he can hit the field again. That would put him in sight of playing in his first NFL season.
"When you tear the Achilles tendon and get it repaired, there's a very low chance that you'll tear it again," Jones said. "It's basically repaired, and you're gonna be stronger, because you're gonna rehab the hell out of it. I'm looking forward to a great career. The only obstacle might be that it takes a little longer to get my explosiveness back. I'll have the speed and stuff like that, but there's no timeframe on getting the explosiveness back.
"I'll be back to regular form, if not even better. This is basically a downtime for me in a way—just learning my body and working out, just pushing myself with this rehab and doing everything I can to be better than I was before. Not even trying to get back to where I was; I want to be better than I was before. That's my mentality, and I'll do something every day: upper body, lower body, leg extensions, hamstring curls, stuff like that. Just getting better every day."
Of course, it was an emotional blow for Jones—after all that work through three seasons, he found himself on the outside looking in as the draft approaches. Jones has held himself up through the process with one simple belief: that despite the injury, he's still the best cornerback in this class.
"I believe that because my film speaks volumes," he said. "Three-year starter, never missed a game, never had any off-field issues. I just believe that my talent is ready for the next level and I'm the best cornerback in this draft. I have speed, technique and everything else. I'm an all-around football player and an all-around cornerback. I understand the game of football very well, and I'm very passionate about it. So, I'm the best cornerback in this draft, and I'll say it until I'm blue in the face."
In the end, the injury might not drag him down too far in the draft. The first round may or may not be out of the question—it's just a matter of whether a team will want to invest resources in Jones' recovery in hopes of gaining an elite press-man cornerback whose open-field footwork can be spectacular.
"There have been players that have gone very high in the first round with injuries like that," Baltimore Ravens assistant general manager Eric DeCosta told Ryan Mink of the team's website last week. "Sometimes they fall a little bit, but [Jones] is a really good player, and I don't think it is going to affect him that much. ... It factors in at times, but again, if the injuries are predictable and we have a good feeling that the kid is going to come back at some point, and we have had players that had this type of injury, then it is OK."
Jones took out a $1 million insurance policy against injury—$500,000 for disability and $500,000 for loss of value in the draft; "It wasn't for a lot...I wish it was more," he said—but at this point, his goal is to get back on the field and show teams what he can do.
With that in mind, Jones broke down six plays from his 2016 season—a season in which he allowed 23 catches on 48 targets for 301 yards and zero touchdowns with three interceptions, four pass breakups and an opponent passer rating of 42.1, according to PFF College.
Some may wonder why Jones still asserts he's the best cornerback in the draft, but the tape tells a convincing story: If he can get back to full strength, he's one of the best defensive players in his class.
Play 1: 11:08, 3rd Quarter vs. Cal
Bleacher Report: This is a great example of how to run boundary coverage on a fade route—you turn your hips quickly off press coverage against Cal's Vic Wharton III, you're running step for step with him, you maintain outside position and you have enough in the tank to search for the ball and make the pick.
In a general sense, what are your technique landmarks for playing intermediate and deep boundary coverage? What's important to remember when you have to do it?
Sidney Jones: Playing the boundary, we're taught to play outside leverage and make it hard for them to throw a fade. Play slightly outside leverage and take away the fade ball is the easiest—if you're going to complete something against our defense, it was going to be the fade, so we made it hard on them by shading ourselves outside. Make it harder for them to go outside, so when we widened outside, they'd have to go outside even more off their spot and off their landmarks. When we do that, it's a win for the cornerbacks. If we're playing a fade, that's how we do it.
If he does an inside release and we have outside leverage, it's OK, because we have our linebackers and our down safety inside to give us a little bit of presence. We can still contest the throw on the inside breaking route.
B/R: When Wharton's going outside to the fade, when do you know, "OK—I've got this ball"?
Jones: On the outside release, he was widened so much by me he was flat down the sideline, so I knew it was not going to be any other route besides the fade. I knew to turn my head at a certain point, and the ball's traveling in the air, and I got the interception.
Play 2: 8:45, 3rd Quarter vs. Cal
B/R: Your second pick against Cal was a different technique—it looks like Cal's running a slant combo here, and you have Wharton over the top of it, and you do a really nice job breaking in and cutting the route. Watching your tape, I'm impressed with your footwork—you have a nice ability to recover in short areas. What was going on in this play, and how important is footwork to you?
Jones: They had this wide bunch formation, and my guy did an inside breaking route. I had my hand on his shoulder, controlling the route, and they were running a switch release. I didn't know what kind of combination it was, but I knew he was going inside, because the No. 2 receiver was far off the ball, and I had picked that up off the film.
So, I was periphing the quarterback, and I saw him pull the trigger on the throw, and there was no other route he was going to run. The timing was 1...2...3, and then he was throwing it.
Play 3: 9:47, 1st Quarter vs. Colorado
B/R: This run stop against Colorado brings up a different part of defense: the ability to break through a block by a bigger receiver (or, in this case, a hold by a bigger receiver like Shay Fields) and make the tackle.
At 6'0" and 186 pounds, you're not a huge guy, so how do you use technique to beat size? When you watch bigger NFL receivers, what are your thoughts about how you'll have to refine that technique?
Jones: Basically, we're taught to take everything to the outside perimeter. We take everything back inside, so I'm setting the edge to make sure the runner doesn't get up the sideline, because it would make it harder for the rest of our team to make the tackle. So, I took everything back inside and got off the block to make the tackle. He was close enough for me to do that.
B/R: You're in man against trips here—at what point in the play do you know it's a run? Is it the block, or is it something you read before the block?
Jones: In my technique, I'm expecting pass all the time. When he blocks me, I know it's not pass anymore, so I'm trying to get my eyes in a position to find the ball-carrier and set the edge from there.
B/R: Are you looking to gain weight at all?
Jones: I don't think the weight is too big an issue, because I played smaller all my life, and I'm at a good weight now, as I was before the injury. I'm still young, and I'm still growing, and that will come naturally as well as with me working out.
Play 4: 4:54, 2nd Quarter vs. Colorado
B/R: I love this play against Fields because it's an even better example of your ability to trail receivers. Your hip turn is so quick it made me wonder how many tells you get from receivers when you're right up on them, because it's not easy to be right in those short spaces, and if you guess wrong off press, you're in trouble.
What kinds of tells was Fields giving you on this play, and how much does reading receivers pre-snap factor into what you do?
Jones: We were outside leverage, and he took a step outside, and then he took another one. So I'm already in position to widen him out, and he goes extra wide because I'm already wide as well.
B/R: He's trying to get leverage with that push there—to get some kind of free release?
Jones: Yeah, he's trying to [laughs].
B/R: Should you have turned your head on this play? You're putting your arms up quickly as the ball goes over, trying to indicate you didn't interfere.
Jones: Yeah, but I saw his eyes, and it looked like the ball was just trailing—the way he was widening, I knew the ball wasn't going to be inbounds, so I didn't even bother to turn my head on that one. I should have turned my head...that's like the one time I didn't in my whole career.
Play 5: 11:17, 2nd Quarter vs. Cal
B/R: I wanted to ask you about this play because it's unusual for you to lose a guy deep to the boundary, as you seemed to with Chad Hansen. What happened?
Jones: That was just bad technique—getting away from my technique.
B/R: Because it looked like you took a couple of steps before you turned your hips to trail him. Were you still reading the route?
Jones: A lot happened on this play. It was bad technique from the start from me. I turned my head back too soon, where if I was trailing him, I could have run to him and played the ball, and I would have been in a better situation. I kinda messed up from the jump, just putting myself in that situation. But it was a good job by them, because they know we play outside leverage, so Hansen did an inside-release fade, and that was one of our weaknesses last year.
B/R: If you have an inside release like this, how are you supposed to cover it?
Jones: When he broke my hip [broke inside off the line], I didn't give him any kind of jam—he had a free release. So it was just a bad play—a lot of things I did wrong that I could have done better. Making sure he doesn't catch it is the most important part, but that all starts at the line. You win the line, you win the route.
Play 6: 12:00, 1st Quarter vs. USC
B/R: I also wanted to ask you about this play, because as much as you played press in college, and will probably be asked to in the NFL, you of course have to deal with physical receivers trying to box you out. Here, it looks like JuJu Smith-Schuster got the better of you as he's pushing off to the slant. What happened, and how do you best counter physical receivers when they do this?
Jones: He's running a dig route basically, and I'm usually in press. But here, he was about three yards off the ball. I should have been more aggressive, but I was playing it like he was at the line of scrimmage, and I backed up a little bit. From there, he had a full head of steam, and I wasn't in a position to be physical with him. I should have stacked him at the line of scrimmage—I should have gone to jam him instead of having him running into me.
In the formal interviews at the combine, they put the bad plays up, and this was one of them actually. It was the one time he got me, and people say, 'Oh, he gets thrown around' or whatever. But they don't show the times when the dude who's heavier than me is getting locked up.
B/R: Well, that's why I wanted to show the inside pick against Cal, where you guided the receiver and jumped the route. Are you looking to trail him more, or would it be ideal in this case to guide and jump it?
Jones: My footing got messed up as well—I'm intending to be more physical at the start, but when he ran into me, it gave him separation, and that's what you don't want. He just won that play.
B/R: How did it help you to play with King and Baker, and how did you help them?
Jones: We helped each other tremendously all season. I shouldn't just say all season—every day, we're pushing each other to be better, to not give up any catches. Just going hard to the ball every practice and competing—making sure we're giving our all on the field at all times.
Our secondary was a real brotherhood; we were playing for each other. We wanted to be the best, and we knew we were. Making sure my brothers can depend on me—they have my back, and I have theirs. We made each other better by our presence and growing as brothers; that was really important for us as a team and as a secondary.
B/R: Final question. This is a really deep cornerback class. NFL teams are going to have all kinds of options. Why should an NFL team select Sidney Jones before any other cornerback in the 2017 draft?
Jones: I'm the best corner in this draft—I said it many times already. I'm an all-around corner, and I can do it in any scheme. Man coverage is my specialty. I know this injury is scaring some people, but I'm going to be back better than I was. I'm a great football player and a great person and someone you would love to have in your locker room.