Dougherty: Safety Jones a linebacker in disguise

Pete Dougherty
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Packers safety Josh Jones (27) stretches during the 2017 rookie orientation inside the Don Hutson Center.

The Green Bay Packers, strictly speaking, didn’t need a safety high in this year’s draft.

Yet, their first minicamp practice drove home that Josh Jones, a safety, was very much a need pick by general manager Ted Thompson in the draft’s second round.

On Friday, it became clearer than ever that Jones is an important part of the Packers’ plans to upgrade their pass defense here and now, as well as the embodiment of how coordinator Dom Capers’ defense is changing with the times.

For a good chunk of the practice Friday, Jones played inside linebacker. He did it in nickel in seven-on-seven work against the offense, and he even worked with the inside ‘backers when the team broke off into individual drills in the middle of the session.

That says plenty.

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NFL teams aren’t in the business of wasting precious time and reps any time they take the field. So having Jones drill at inside linebacker in his first NFL practice is a pretty good sign of the Packers’ plans, or at least initial hopes, even if Jones worked some at safety, too.

It’s also the clearest sign yet of the direction Capers and coach Mike McCarthy are moving the Packers’ defense after finishing last season ranked No. 26 in defensive passer rating (95.9). The NFL is becoming more matchup oriented in the passing game by the year, so defense is now all about nickel and dime personnel, and getting faster at every position in the back seven, especially linebacker.

The days of a true linebacker playing down after down are long gone. Morgan Burnett started lining up there more in the nickel late last season, and McCarthy has promised even more of that this year. Drafting Jones demonstrates just how strong that commitment is, and working him there in his first practice means Capers and McCarthy are looking for the rookie’s help now.

Not that long ago, if you had two linebackers who ran in the mid-4.6s, you were OK in the nickel. Now that’s not even close to good enough for matching up with the best passing schemes, which feature roles for slot receivers, running backs and fast, skilled tight ends.

Burnett ran a 4.51 coming out of college. Now age 28, he’s probably not quite that fast, but close enough.

And then there’s Jones, whose 40 at the NFL scouting combine was electronically timed at 4.41 seconds. At 220 pounds, he’s also 11 pounds heavier than Burnett. So he’s faster plus better built to handle the run responsibilities that go with playing near the line of scrimmage.

The Jones pick was essentially the inside linebacker Thompson badly needed but hadn’t drafted high the last several years. And with the way the game has been evolving, it makes sense that he didn’t take a traditional linebacker, even a well-regarded one, in the first couple rounds.

Packers rookie Josh Jones drills during Packers rookie orientation inside the Don Hutson Center in Ashwaubenon.

To justify being picked that high, a linebacker has to be exceptionally fast for the position. Because if he isn’t, it’s getting tougher and tougher to keep him on the field.

To wit: At the draft, McCarthy said Capers’ defense was in nickel or dime on more than 80 percent of the defensive snaps last season. That’s only going to go up in the coming years.

So it’s easy to envision the different players Capers will work with in his various nickels and dimes, depending on circumstance.

On first down in nickel, he might play Blake Martinez and Jake Ryan at linebacker to help stop the run. On second down, Burnett or Jones could replace one of the two. On third down, we might see four safeties — Burnett and Jones at linebacker, and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Kentrell Brice deep. Or, Capers could go with a more traditional dime, but with Burnett or Jones as the lone linebacker, and the other back at safety.

Capers’ plan in part will depend on how much Jones can learn in a short period of time. Jones said he played some linebacker at North Carolina State, in a package called “grizzly” that the team used extensively against Miami last season.

“I’m a very versatile safety,” Jones said after his first practice. “This is all about taking coaching and doing what they tell you to do.”

But Capers’ scheme will be more complicated, so the coordinator might want to work Jones more at one spot than the other. In that case, my money’s on linebacker. And the Packers can only hope Jones is the self-starter he sounded like after Friday’s practice.

“I go by the motto 'no handouts,'” Jones said. “I don’t want anything handed to me. I want to work for it. Our country, that’s what we pride ourselves on, hard workers. Nothing is handed to us.”

No, but much is expected of this second-round pick. And the Packers clearly are looking for his help right now. and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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