Packers' need for speed nets safety Josh Jones

Ryan Wood
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GREEN BAY – He sounded like someone who just won the lottery. Voice was high pitched. Slightly out of breath. Words falling one over the next.

North Carolina State safety Josh Jones tackles Wake Forest quarterback John Wolford on Oct 1, 2016.

Think Josh Jones was excited Friday night? Inside his brother’s Atlanta home, he watched the NFL draft’s second round. The Dallas Cowboys’ 60th overall pick was in. That’s when Jones’ cell phone rang with a northeast Wisconsin area code.

“I just jumped out of my seat so fast,” Jones said, those words spilling over. “I just knew. I knew it. I knew this was my opportunity.”

Jones said he didn’t want to get his hopes up. His agent warned him, like most prospects, of the draft’s unpredictable nature. In the back of his mind, Jones remembered a formal meeting with the Green Bay Packers “that went great” at the NFL scouting combine in March. He remembered two scouts attending his pro day.

He knew they were interested, but until that cellphone rings, you never know.

“We felt like he was a very well-developed football player,” general manager Ted Thompson said, “and we were a little surprised he was there.”

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What the Packers got with their original second-round pick Friday, the draft’s 61st selection overall, wasn’t an obvious positional need. The Packers have Pro Bowler Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and veteran Morgan Burnett, one of the league’s better safety combos. Behind them, Kentrell Brice flashed potential as an undrafted rookie last season.

But a roster bio won’t tell you exactly what the Packers expect Jones to give their defense. It isn’t just the 109 tackles he had as a junior at North Carolina State last fall. It isn’t the eight career interceptions he had in three seasons, the most among underclassmen safeties drafted in the first two rounds.

It’s where Jones lined up: all over the field.

“I’m very versatile,” Jones said. “I have great size to play in the box, great speed to back deep. So I’m just excited to get to work as soon as possible.”

It’s fitting Jones watched Friday’s second round from Atlanta, site of the Packers’ last game.

Memories of their NFC championship game implosion clearly lingered into late April, directly affecting how the Packers used their first two draft picks. Their pass defense was a problem all season, never more glaring than the game that kept them out of Super Bowl LI.

Edge defenders help a pass defense, and Friday ended without the Packers addressing their pass rush. Know what else helps? Big players who can run fast and cover. With their first pick, No. 33 overall, the Packers drafted Washington cornerback Kevin King – all 6-foot-3, 200 pounds of him. King ran a 4.43-second dash at the combine, a blur at that size.

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They doubled down on their secondary with Jones, a 6-foot-1½, 221-pound defensive back whose 4.40-second dash at the combine became the fastest on the Packers defense. It’s what Jones does with his measurables that impressed the Packers.

“He has a tremendous physique,” Thompson said. “He's athletic, he can run like the wind. He can be used in the slot as a cover guy, he can be used in the box as a run defender. He can be in the deep part of the defense and play in the deep middle. He's, like I said, an excellent physical specimen. I think he's going to surprise people when they see what he can do.”

Brian Gutekunst, the Packers director of player personnel, said Jones can be used similar to Burnett. Before Friday, the plan was for Burnett to play more in the box as a nickel linebacker in 2017. Maybe he still will, but with Jones the Packers now have another option. Jones said “without a doubt” he can play linebacker in the Packers’ favored subpackage defenses.

It would address a significant weakness in the Packers' pass defense. It wasn’t just their perimeter coverage lacking last season. For years now, they’ve struggled covering linebackers, slot receivers and tight ends in the short and intermediate middle of the field.

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Clinton-Dix gives the Packers a deep center fielder, a player whose five interceptions last season tied for second among NFL safeties. With Jones, the Packers have someone who can cover the underneath routes that have plagued them for so long.

“He’s a very good tackler in space and in the box,” Gutekunst said. “He’s one of those guys at N.C. State, you’ll see they drop him in there, kind of play a will linebacker. And he’ll shoot the gap and take on the big guys inside, and has no problem doing that. And when he’s back in the back end, and he’s got to get the speed guys, he has no problem with that either.

“That’s the exciting thing for us, is the ability that he can do so many things.”

In that combine meeting, the Packers were short on specifics where Jones will line up in their defense. There’s a reason for that. What they drafted here was a wild card, a safety who can play linebacker and has experience lining up at cornerback. The Packers don’t see Jones playing the field’s perimeter, but he’ll see snaps in the box, he’ll see snaps deep. He’ll play all over.

If things work out, they’ll be the ones who feel they won the second-round lottery.

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