When you play for one of the best teams in the league, it becomes harder to do well and have no one notice. However, when you start the season as the backup to the backup at a position, and you are replacing a superstar, it’s much easier for you to remain a secret. That was the case for the Green Bay Packers’ Brad Jones in the 2012 season.
After switching from outside linebacker to inside, where the Packers had a lot of depth at the position, it looked like it was time to write Jones off. It wasn’t until injuries to both Desmond Bishop and D.J. Smith that Jones could see the field, and once he did he became an every-down player — and a good one at that.
While there is a chance Jones might just be a one-year wonder, there are plenty of signs that point to him having a big role with the Packers in the future. He signed a three-year deal to return to Green Bay for reportedly $11.75m. D.J. Smith was released, A.J. Hawk was forced to take a pay cut, and during the draft Desmond Bishop was on the trade block. Jones is here to stay and should be a name to remember on Green Bay’s defense.
Playing Opposite Matthews
In the 2008 college season, Jones had a breakout year for Colorado where he led the team in sacks, at six, and tackles for a loss, 11.5. In the 2009 draft, Green Bay added Clay Matthews in the first round and Jones in the seventh. Both were drafted to play outside linebacker to help in the Packers’ transition from the 4-3 defense to the 3-4. An injury to Aaron Kampman mid-season led to Jones landing the starting job and splitting playing time with Brady Poppinga. He managed an impressive four sacks in the second half of the season.
This landed him the starting job in 2010, while the Packers opted to not re-sign Kampman, but in his 116 pass rushes on the season he couldn’t manage a sack and had only nine pressures. Undrafted rookie Frank Zombo started taking some of Jones’ playing time by Week 3, and in Week 7 Jones suffered a shoulder injury that landed him on injured reserve.
For the 2011 season there was a three-way battle between Jones, Zombo and Erik Walden, which Walden ended up winning. There would be few snaps each week for Jones, but it wasn’t until Week 17 that he saw significant playing time. In both the Week 17 matchup as well as the divisional playoff game against the Giants, Jones was able to pick up a sack, but his 7.9 Pass Rushing Productivity on the season was still below where you would like it to be.
The following draft the Packers added Nick Perry in the first round to be their new outside linebacker across from Matthews, and Jones was moved to inside linebacker.
Moving to the Top of the Depth Chart
At the start of the season, Jones was used as a special teams player. Starter Desmond Bishop was hurt in the preseason, and his replacement D.J. Smith was hurt in the Week 6 game against Houston, which inserted Jones into the starting role. From that point on he was an every-down player while teammate A.J. Hawk played only in the base and nickel defense.
What made him impressive is that he could play all aspects of the game at a decent level. His presence in the run game was felt right away, with a tackle for a loss in his first quarter of action and a forced fumble just two weeks later. He managed four more tackles for losses over the following three games. What was possibly his most impressive game against the run was in Week 15 against Chicago where he had four tackles for no gain over the course of 20 carries. While the entire team struggled to stop the quarterback from running in the playoffs, Jones did have two quarterback tackles that made the offense fail to convert on third down.
While run defense is key for an inside linebacker, their coverage is also important and Jones was one of the best in 2012. He had a Pass Defensed on 6.8% of his targets, which was tied for seventh at the position. While he allowed a high catch rate, he could frequently make the tackle soon after the completion to make it a successful play for the defense. The best example of this is the Week 16 game against Tennessee where he allowed four catches, but all four came on third down where the receiver was stopped short of the first down. His +4.6 coverage grade was fourth-highest for all middle/inside linebackers in 2012.
There should certainly be an interesting battle at the inside linebacker position in Green Bay in 2013. In 2010 Desmond Bishop was one of the best inside linebackers in the game, but he regressed some in 2011 and missed all of 2012. The Packers have seemed content leaving A.J. Hawk in the starting lineup, and to their defense Hawk had by far his best season in the pros in 2012, even if it wasn’t as good as Jones. All three have their own weaknesses, with Jones’ being that he missed too many tackles. If he can cut down on those he could put himself among the best inside linebackers in the league.
All three players are getting paid starting money, but unless the Packers get creative only one or two will be on the field at a time. If it were my decision, Jones would be a starter.
Follow Nathan on Twitter: @PFF_NateJahnke