Prior to heading to Mobile for the Senior Bowl, my Sideline View cohort Lance Zierlein and I were discussing our most intriguing Senior Bowl prospects. I quickly noted Florida State’s Christian Jones, in large part due to the fact that I wanted to see how the Jacksonville Jaguars coaching staff would use him down in Mobile. Would they play him at middle linebacker? Would they allow him to stand up and rush the edge? Would he play one of the outside linebacker spots?
It dawned on me at that particular moment how different and unique Jones is and the dimension that he provides for an NFL team. Many don’t see it my way, well, many in the draft media world. But, I can be stubborn about what I’ve seen and even more so as it pertains to what I think Jones can do for an NFL team at the next level. Here’s why.
The former Seminole was a five-star prospect coming out of high school at defensive end/outside linebacker. His father and his brother were star Seminole pass rushers and Jones looked to carry on the tradition. Unfortunately, FSU DC Mark Stoops had a much different idea and played him at outside linebacker. Once in the starting lineup, he made a significant impact with his ability to get to the football and tackle. He didn’t miss much at all.
Tackling is fundamental, but teams spend so little time working on it. They need players that can step in yesterday and makes tackles. How important has tackling become?
"Through my work with personnel departments across the NFL I have witnessed an increased emphasis in assessing a defensive players' tackling ability,” said STATS Sports Solutions Group GM John Pollard. “With today's wide open offensive game a defensive player has to be able to translate their athleticism and on field intelligence into sure tackling in an effort to keep plays in front and reduce the big play."
According to STATS Ice, of the five top linebacker prospects, Jones measured as the most efficient and most impactful tackler of the group. “Impact tackles” are tackles 2 yards or less from the line of scrimmage that do not result in a first down and it is a key metric with personnel people as it helps them highlight LBs who play downhill rather than passively. Jones registered 53 tackles this year, of which 24.5% of them were impact tackles.
Looking for more? Christian Jones had no tackles broken and was tagged with just two missed tackles all season posting an extremely impressive tackle efficiency rating of 96.2% which was just behind C.J. Mosley at 97.2% and better than guys like Kyle Van Noy (79.1%), Anthony Barr (90.2%) and Shayne Skov (91.7%). It’s also worth noting that Jones’ team was 5.2% more successful when he was on the field than off which is better than all of the LBs listed above.
He closes on the ball in a hurry. He doesn’t stay blocked. He runs extremely well. He covers well out of the backfield. He’ll rush the passer. But, all of that is moot if he can’t tackle. The numbers more than show that he can effectively.
I had lunch a few years with a former University of Texas football player. Well, he was one of a group of about 12 people at the lunch. I didn’t know he was in the group and guys were firing a bunch of questions at me about the upcoming college football season. Finally, after going rapid fire for about ten minutes, someone finally asks
“Why did he not make it in the NFL?”
I didn’t miss a beat: “He didn’t have a position.”
Said Longhorn played some OLB and some safety, but never mastered either and left NFL scouts wondering what to do with him. He didn’t thrive at either in camp, so he got cut. However, the league has changed in some respects.
Holding to traditional positions and labels is not what the NFL does anymore. A tight end is a tight end in name only. What position does Randall Cobb play? WR? Okay, why does he line up in the backfield so much? Whereas tweeners and “no position” guys couldn’t exist in the NFL years ago, some of those players now have “scheme versatility” and can thrive under the right coaching/flexible scheme.
Jones fits that “scheme versatile” moniker to a T. In 2011, he started the entire season at Sam linebacker in a 4-3. In 2012, he started the entire season at Will linebacker in a 4-3. In 2013, he started the first half of the season inside, then spent the second half of the season rushing the edge as a stand up 3-4 OLB.
The pass rushing aspect of playing the edge was a little like getting back up on a bike and riding. Jones jumped right in and got after the quarterback. In Mobile, the South team tackles couldn’t stop the two reps a day that Jones took off the edge before he had to go back to pass skelly drills with the inside linebackers. Surprisingly, though, he played the run on the edge better than you’d expect. We saw at the Senior Bowl how difficult he was to block at the point of attack. The guy started for two and a half years at inside linebacker and you would’ve never guessed that after watching No. 7 play the edge for a half of a season.
So, what scheme does he fit? All of them…and that’s a great thing. Why? Glad you asked.
The ‘Seahawks’ Effect
If a Super Bowl winning team could take its winning formula, bottle it, sell it and donate the earnings back to the US government, there’d be no domestic deficit, that’s for sure. Unfortunately, the only thing other NFL teams can do is attempt to replicate what the Seattle Seahawks have done to become a championship team.
We all know what an offensive league the NFL has become. Every rule instituted in the game is to allow the offense the opportunity to put points on the board. But, GM John Schneider and head coach Pete Carroll took a different approach. They went and found the most versatile, aggressive, sound tackling and physical players they could find, no matter the position. Schneider loved Beast Mode Marshawn Lynch and made the move to get him years ago even though he seemingly had lost his way in Buffalo. In the 2012 draft, he selected former West Virginia edge rusher/speedster Bruce Irvin. What position did Irvin play? Ah, it didn’t matter. His speed and his ability to make something happen on the field meant more than where he “fit” the defense. Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman? Same thing. Heck, Sherman was a former receiver!
Either way, the point is that physical dominance, chaos, disruption, tackling and defensive efficiency meant more to the Seahawks’ brain trust than anything else.
Jones won’t be a Seahawk given the depth Seattle has at that position, but the fact that teams want “Seattle type” linebackers plays to his advantage. He’s a little over 6’3” and 234. He has an 80+” wingspan with nearly 33” arms. Sounds a lot like K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner. He runs exceptionally well, like those two. And, like those two, he could play any linebacker position on the field or star in any role the defensive coaches desire.
Add it all up and it’s going to be hard to find a linebacker with the tackling efficiency, the measurables and scheme versatility like Christian Jones leading up to the 2014 NFL Draft.