'Little things' loom large in Datone Jones' future

Ryan Wood
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Sixth in a series looking at the Green Bay Packers’ unrestricted, restricted and exclusive-rights free agents in advance of the start of the 2017 league year and NFL free agency March 9.

Packers defensive end Datone Jones celebrates after a play against the Jacksonville Jaguars in the 2016 season opener.

GREEN BAY - When evaluating the totality of Datone Jones’ production through the first four seasons of his career, expectations are important.

Jones was a first-round pick, the 26th overall selection of the 2013 draft, and first-round defensive ends are expected to wreak havoc on the passer. With nine sacks in 59 regular-season games, he never developed into much of an edge rusher. His 3.5 sacks as a rookie stands as his single-season high.

That didn’t change when the Green Bay Packers moved Jones to outside linebacker last season. Despite a career-high 31½ pressures last season, according to stats compiled by the Journal Sentinel's Bob McGinn, Jones had just one sack. And first-round picks are paid for sacks.

But while Jones never became a Cameron Jordan or Chandler Jones — edge rushers drafted in the mid-20s of the first round in recent years — he developed into a serviceable rotational player in the Packers’ defensive front.

Jones’ ability to line up on the edge, as well as the interior in sub packages, gives the Packers versatility. He has been durable, playing 67 out of a possible 72 games counting playoffs. And while Jones’ nine sacks rank sixth on the Packers since the start of 2013, he has become one of their sturdiest run defenders.

Those skills will be considered when Jones enters free agency next month. The Packers declined last offseason to pick up his fifth-year option that comes with being drafted in the first round, allowing Jones to enter free agency after four seasons.

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“I’m not looking at it like I’m looking to go to another team,” Jones said a day after the Packers’ loss at the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC championship game. “Because I really do want to be here. I really want to be a part of this organization until I retire. My family, my daughter was born here. Just little things.

“It’s all about the Green Bay Packers for me, and just being back in this locker room.”

At the right price, it isn’t hard to see the Packers re-signing Jones for another season in Green Bay. The Packers re-signed former first-round pick Nick Perry a year ago to one season at $5 million despite declining his fifth-year option.

Jones’ contract doesn’t figure to pay as much as the deal Perry signed last offseason. Though Perry wasn’t as durable as Jones through his first four seasons, he showed more potential as a pass rusher when healthy. In 46 games through his first four seasons, Perry had 12.5 sacks.

Perry also had six postseason sacks in his career, half coming in two playoff games a year ago. As a pass rusher, he carried momentum into his free agency. Jones has a half sack in eight postseason games.

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Yet Jones provided enough production to be on the field. He played 36 snaps (49 percent) at Atlanta, 32 snaps (46 percent) at Dallas, and 20 snaps (31 percent) in the Packers’ wild-card win against New York. That’s a testament not only to what Jones provides as a run defender, but also the multiple places he can line up.

Jones was suspended for the 2015 opener in Chicago after being cited for marijuana possession hours after the Packers’ loss at Seattle in the 2014 NFC championship game. He since has stayed free of trouble and spoke of becoming a more mature person after his daughter, Laila, was born in October 2015.

With a pending move to outside linebacker, Jones showed his commitment on the field last offseason. He shed 20 pounds, dropping from 295 to 275 to become leaner for the position. While Jones’ explosiveness off the edge never materialized, he was powerful enough to continue playing inside despite a lighter weight.

So it depends on expectations. No, Jones doesn’t figure to exceed double digits in sacks from year to year. As a versatile rotational player, the Packers might see enough value to bring him back.

“I love being a part of this organization, the city,” Jones said, “and everything it has to offer as far as a fan base, and as far as that family feel. It’s special to be a part of this organization. You really don’t think about it until you’re sitting here, you’re in this light.

“For me, I’m just going to take it a day at a time. I’m not really worried about free agency because I really want to be back here.”

Datone Jones, fifth-year edge rusher

The skinny: Unrestricted free agent.

The snaps: Played 59 games, seven starts in four seasons; added OLB to responsibilities late in 2015 season.

The stats: One sack, 17 tackles, two batted passes last season; nine sacks, 58 tackles, seven batted passes in career.

2016 salary: $1 million.

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