Jonathan Owens could've walked away from football, but a moment changed his life and led him to the Packers
GREEN BAY − Jonathan Owens still smiles when thinking about it: the game, the play, the moment that changed his life. Standing in the Green Bay Packers locker room during the first week of organized team activities, the Packers offseason free agent safety acquisition can point to the instance his NFL career went from hope to tangible dream, starting a journey that landed him in Green Bay.
While with the Houston Texans in 2021, after a year on the practice squad, the former undrafted free agent had seen little action. Then, ahead of Week 15 against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Justin Reid suffered a concussion, pushing Owens onto the field. He held his own and got the starting nod again the next week, when the Texans other starting safety, Eric Murray, went on the COVID-19 list.
“My next start, against a playoff team, the (Los Angeles) Chargers, and I got an interception on Justin Herbert,” Owens said. “And that was the moment that really changed my life and let me know I belong.”
The Texans were in cover two and the Chargers ran a corner post. It was a deep ball over the top so Owens undercut it for the turnover. His interception came in the end zone, nullifying what would’ve made it a two-score lead. Instead, the Texans scored on the resulting drive and wouldn’t relinquish the lead in what became a monumental win.
“It was actually the first game my mom got to come to,” Owens said. “First game she got to come to in the NFL. And I was mic’d up that game, too, which is crazy. I had the best game of my life. So that's when I knew, I’m where I'm supposed to be.”
It was a long-earned moment for the young defensive back, and punctuated his decision to stick with the dream even when the dream tried to give up on him. Signed as an undrafted free agent in 2018 by the Arizona Cardinals, Owens was waived following an injury and spent that season on injured reserve. He was waived again the following August.
It was an opportunity to walk away before even getting started, find another passion to pursue. But he wasn’t ready yet. Instead, he spent the time working on his own at a facility across the street from the Cardinals.
“I knew it was what I was supposed to do,” Owens said. “I'm not gonna say I couldn't see myself doing anything else. But like, I just felt this really is what God wanted me to do. I was here to play football. And I knew I was good enough to play.
“At that point, in my career, I was like, ‘man, I'm gonna be an elite special team player. Like, whatever it takes to get to the roster.’ And I really honed in on that. But I knew I could play. That was the thing. So as I said, at that point, it was just about being patient, and waiting for that opportunity.”
The opportunity came with Houston. After those two games in 2021 that opened the door, Owens had a full-time starting spot in 2022. He finished with 125 tackles, second most for any safety in the league. There is a caveat to the stat: the tackles were there to be had for Owens, behind the worst run defense in the league last year. What his performance gave him in confidence though can’t be quantified.
“When you know that you're somewhere that you're supposed to be, you just carry yourself differently,” Owens said. “I had a feeling I wasn't just a practice squad guy now.”
It also gave Owens tape that put him on the Packers radar. And after a season of missed tackles from the Green Bay defense, seeing Owens wrap up opponents was encouraging.
“He’s very eager,” Packers defensive backs coach Ryan Downard said. "He obviously has some skill. I think looking back at my report once we signed him, I think he played like 960 snaps last year. It was his first year really getting a ton of snaps, which we discussed. He’s had a long journey.
“But he’s a good football mind. Been in the league for some years. And his best attribute, at least off his tape in the past, was his ability to tackle. That was the thing I had him graded out the highest.”
The Texans elected not to re-sign Owens. It’s a decision he promises to understand, pointing to a new coaching staff in Houston, the signing of Jimmie Ward and the promising play of the young Jalen Pitre. Instead, the former Missouri West player came north.
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The Packers also added free agent safety Tarvarius Moore this spring. But with the departure of Adrian Amos and questions surrounding Darnell Savage, who was benched last season for a time, there is a need for veteran depth in a transitioning unit. That’s where Owens is hoping to help.
“I just come in and compete,” Owens said. “There's open room and guys are ready to come in and make you better every day. I just want to get better every day. I'm not gonna say any guarantees or anything. That's my goal, is to come in, improve every day, learn the scheme, play style, how the coaches want you play and just be a great teammate.”
It took Owens a while to get here, standing in the Packers locker room with plans to become a major contributor. He patiently waited for the moment that would change his life. Now he’s ready for the next one.
“I’m still here, fighting,” Owens said. “So it was all part of the journey.”