By: Zach Metkler, GZ Sports Report Writer
After the 2012 season, the Steelers had major question marks at outside linebacker after the release of James Harrison and the noticeable decline of LaMarr Woodley. With the Steelers ineffective pass-rush, many draft pundits had the team going with an edge-rusher in the 1st-round of the 2013 NFL Draft. Names like Dion Jordan, Ezekiel Ansah, and Barkevious Mingo were all names that were linked to the Steelers. There was one name that was widely considered a consensus top edge-rusher in this class, though.
Many draft experts expected Jones to be selected in the top 10 and even potentially the top 5. Here is what NFL.com had to say about Jones during the pre-draft process:
“The Peach State native suffered a neck injury his true freshman year at USC, but returned home when cleared by Georgia doctors; the consensus All-American impressed scouts in 2011 with his ability to rush the passer and he didn’t let up in 2012, leading the nation in sacks, tackles for loss and forced fumbles. Jones also showed the versatility to play the run and get the job done in coverage. He enters the NFL with some questions with his struggles disengaging at the point of attack and limited length and growth potential, but the production speaks for itself and, as Bruce Irvin reminded us last April, pass rushers don’t last long on draft day. Whether or not he would be able to fit in a 4-3 defense like Irvin would depend on how he is used, but he would fit best as a pass rush OLB in a 3-4 like in college.”
As you can see, there was extremely high praise for the former Georgia Bulldog, but there were a lot of concerns about Jones, largely his medical issues that led to him leaving USC after his freshman year. During his true freshman year, he suffered a neck injury that sidelined him for the remainder of the season and caused red-flags for medical staff at USC. Georgia medical staff cleared Jones and he was able to transfer to his native state, where he quickly became one of the most dominant pass-rushers in college football. During his sophomore season, as he was named a finalist for the Butkus Award and was a consensus All-American and first-team All-SEC selection. That season, Jones started all 14 games and totaled 70 tackles, 19.5 for loss (top in the SEC) and 13.5 sacks (top in the SEC, tied for 5th in the country). Jones continued his ridiculous productive in in his redshirt junior season, leading the nation in sacks (14.5, school record), tackles for loss (24.5, school record) and forced fumbles (7). He also totaled 85 tackles, 4 passes defended and an interception that season and was a finalist for the Bednarik, Lombardi, Nagurski, Butkus and Lott awards.
To almost everyone’s amazement, Jones fell to the Steelers with the 17th pick. The Steelers seemingly had the steal of the draft and would be set for a decade.
Fast-forward 3 seasons. To date, Jones has 87 combined tackles, 5 sacks, and an interception. Through his first few seasons, he has not been able to solidify himself as a legitimate starter, even though he has been listed as a starter for 26 career games. There have been moments of brilliance and consistency but too many moments that make you scratch your head.
What went wrong?
Jones has really been stunted in his growth due to his inability to remain healthy and stay on the field. Through seasons, Jones has yet to play a full 16 games (14 in 2013, 7 in 2014, 15 in 2015). Last season, Jones seemed to finally gain some traction and consistency, really coming into his own, especially in the playoffs. While he has not really established himself as a pass-rusher, he has improved steadily by becoming a highly effective run defender. However, even with these subtle improvements, the Steelers chose to not pick up his 5th-year option, meaning that he will become a free agent at the conclusion of the 2016 season.
This year is the definition of a make-or-break season for the underwhelming pass-rusher. After getting snubbed for his 5th-year option, Jones has been training harder than ever before and cut 20 lbs. off his frame to improve his conditioning and explosion, something he has seemingly lacked so far during his professional career. This newly found physique (270 lbs. down to 250 lbs.) and motivation should help put some pep in his step. The coaching staff certainly hopes so. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler had this to say on Steelers Nation Radio:
“I hope he’s motivated, I mean he should be motivated, that’s the reason we did it. We like Jarvis. There’s nothing wrong with putting him in that situation. I’d rather put him in that situation to see how he responds, because in this league, it doesn’t matter who you play and who you are, you’ve got to perform under pressure. If you can’t perform under pressure you won’t be in this league. That is a cold, hard fact of the National Football League and so it’s a cold, hard fact with him just as it is with anybody else. You’ve got to perform and we look for him to perform. If he had been an All-Pro, been to that dadgum Pro Bowl for three or four years, sure we’d try to get him done and get all of that stuff sewed up. But he hasn’t done that and so he’s going to have to play up to what we expect of him.”
“Play up to what we expect of him.”
So what DO the Steelers expect from him? The quick response is simple.
But Jones’ situation is much more complex than that. If Jones has a stellar year, he will likely price himself out of the Steeler price range, especially with how valuable edge-rushers are in today’s NFL. If Jones has another “meh” year, the Steelers will have no reason to re-sign him and he will be still looking for employment elsewhere. The only way the Steelers will keep Jones at this point is if he has an average year and shows improvement while keeping himself in the team friendly salary range.
Realistically, though, if Jones has the motivation to prove his doubters wrong, he just might not want to stay with the team that snubbed him of about $8.4M in 2017 and look for a job elsewhere. If Jones’ weight truly does help with his performance on the field, expect big things from him in 2016.
It is a do-or-die season, after all.
But don’t expect him to be around in 2017.