Mike Trgovac has seen the flashes in Datone Jones' game.
The Green Bay Packers defensive line coach has witnessed it in practice and games. The potential is obvious, but there seems to be a setback whenever the 2013 first-round draft pick seems to turn a corner.
It started when Jones sprained his ankle as a rookie in training camp. He played in all 16 games, but dealt with the injury for most of the season. The 6-foot-4, 285-pound rusher insists he was healthy last season despite missing three games with another ankle flare-up.
Jones has been a serviceable rotational rusher with 31 tackles and five sacks in his first 29 games, but he's found it difficult to carve out a larger role. He averaged 24.1 defensive snaps per game last season, playing a little more than a quarter of the unit's total.
"I think the last two years, every time he starts making improvement, he's hurt," Trgovac said. "When you're a defensive lineman and you're close to a 300-pound guy and you hurt your ankle, it's hard to move a 300-pound body on a bad ankle. Hopefully, he can have a little bit of luck because Tone works hard and Tone loves this game. I think he does a lot of good things for us."
Jones has read what's been written about him and hears what's said. He's fully aware of the perception that "Datone didn't have the jump" in 2014 that you look for in second-year players. Still only 24, Jones believes there's time to live up to his draft status.
He admittedly had maturing to do. After reflecting on his first two seasons, Jones acknowledged he needed to "really dial in" and put his focus solely into football. Outside of getting married this offseason, his life revolved around training and trying to return in as good of shape as possible.
The revelation also reverted him to a routine he used at Compton (Calif.) High School, where he'd jot down goals in a journal every morning. Nothing extravagant — just small notes to keep himself motivated and working toward something.
"I think that's what made me successful," Jones said. "It was like, let me get back to the basics. Not reinvent the wheel, but let me get back to the basics and continue bettering myself.
"Every day I wake up, I write a new goal down in my practice book and I try to go attack it out in practice. If I don't, then I'll scratch out the goals I completed and the next day I'm working at a new one."
Jones didn't make any changes to his body. He's already "a big guy," but he has gravitated to yoga and Pilates to increase his flexibility. He picked up both during his rookie season, working with veteran B.J. Raji. After suffering the ankle injury, Jones decided to give it another try.
The Packers went into last season with the hope of transforming Jones into a three-down rusher. He started in the 3-4 base defense early in the season before giving way to 2013 classmate Josh Boyd after the ankle injury. He went back to a subpackage rusher once he returned.
Jones finished with only 11/2 sacks in 2014, but ranked second on the defensive line in quarterback hurries (15) behind Mike Daniels, according to Pro Football Focus. He had arguably his best game against Tampa Bay in Week 16 when he had half a sack, two pressures and an 18-yard interception return.
"Towards the end of the year when I really started getting back into it, I felt my whole entire game transform," Jones said. "I was affecting the quarterback a lot more. I was involved in more plays. I was there all the time."
Jones repeatedly mentions how this is a new year. That also means new challenges. Competition will be tight for playing time on the defensive line. The Packers, and NFL in general, are deploying their subpackages at historic rates.
The Packers ran their dime package, where Jones receives a bulk of his work, roughly 20 percent of the time last season and typically uses only one true defensive lineman with hybrid rushers like Julius Peppers or Mike Neal manning the other interior spot.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy said earlier this offseason that he feels this could be the best line the Packers have featured in his decade as head coach. Re-signed Raji and Letroy Guion likely will be paired with Daniels in hopes of improving the league's 23rd-ranked run defense.
Jones, Boyd and a handful of other linemen will compete for the rest. Wherever Jones lines up, he wants to capitalize on those chances. When there's a quarterback in his sights, he has to finish the job this year.
"My biggest thing is putting (the injuries) behind me now and moving forward in my career to better myself," Jones said. "I've been doing so many things to help me out with yoga, palettes. All this different stuff to keep me healthy and keep me bending and keep me flexible. I'm just as strong as I was when I was a rookie or my second year and I'm ready to go."
This is a big season for Jones for many reasons. He's signed through 2016, but the Packers will have to decide after this year whether they want to exercise Jones' fifth-year option.
The move gives teams a chance to control a first-round pick for an additional season. So far, Green Bay is one of only a handful of NFL teams that have yet to use it, passing on outside linebacker Nick Perry (2012) and tackle Derek Sherrod (2011).
Jones has confidence in what he brings to the table, even if the critics don't. This year he has to show it. He's hungry, healthy and feels he's ready to be the difference-maker the Packers hoped for when they drafted him 26th overall two years ago.
"I felt like when I was healthy and I was at full-go, I was able to show guys this is what Datone Jones could provide," Jones said. "This is what he could do. This is how effective he could be. You're watching a really good guy in the making."
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