GREEN BAY—The athletic ability was unmistakable in Datone Jones as a rookie.
The 285-pound defensive lineman got at least one of his 3½ sacks last season playing a “spy” technique, dropping off the line of scrimmage and chasing down the quarterback. He also blocked an extra-point attempt and even played outside linebacker in a pinch in the playoffs.
Now it’s time to translate that athleticism into more one-on-one victories at the line of scrimmage. That’s the key for Jones as the Packers’ 2013 first-round draft pick heads into his all-important second pro season. It’s also why, when asked what he’s focusing on during offseason workouts and the current OTAs, Jones referred to specific techniques that he’ll need to master in order to win in the trenches.
“For me, I’m just working on utilizing my hands better,” Jones said. “A lot of times last year, I felt like when I made one move I got stuck on blockers, and now, I’m just keeping my motor going, keeping my hands moving.”
Technique jargon like that may sound boring, but it’s often boring attention to detail that creates success. Whether Jones is deployed as an end in the base defense or an inside rusher in the nickel, getting stuck on blockers won’t cut it, and he knows it.
Part of the slow start to Jones’ NFL career can be attributed to an ankle injury sustained in the first preseason game last August. It derailed a strong first two weeks of training camp, cost him valuable practice time, and left him at less than full strength for a while into the regular season.
How long exactly, Jones isn’t interested in saying. Unspoken was the fact that later in the season when he should have been healthier, his playing time on defense was actually declining, so in that respect, the ankle injury is irrelevant, especially now.
“I feel like that’s an excuse for me,” he said. “I gave it my all last year, left it on the field. We can’t really look back at last year anymore. What happened last year is done.”
Looking ahead to this year, Jones is amongst several Packers defenders who could help forge the unit’s desired improvement if they make the proverbial jump from their first to second seasons. Head Coach Mike McCarthy made specific mention of Jones in that regard at the scouting combine this year, putting him at the top of a list that also includes defensive back Micah Hyde, fellow defensive lineman Josh Boyd and outside linebacker Andy Mulumba, among others.
A prime example of making that leap could be the guy lining up next to Jones as one of the defense’s interior nickel pass rushers. Mike Daniels, a 2012 fourth-round pick, went from bit player to impact lineman last season, more than tripling his sack total from two as a rookie to 6½ in 2013. Should Jones do that, he’s suddenly a double-digit sack guy.
That’s a lot to ask of a player who only saw between one and two dozen defensive snaps per game last season, but Jones will use every resource at his disposal to get there, including veteran free-agent pickup Julius Peppers. The former Carolina Panther and Chicago Bear knows all there is to know about turning athleticism into on-field production.
“Every day I’m always in his ear, ‘Can you watch me real quick so you can see how I’m rushing?’ He always gives me great feedback on what I should do,” Jones said of Peppers. “He’s a great guy. He’s real quiet, but he’s a beast.”
Jones would love nothing better than to become a beast himself. The Packers spent the 26th overall pick in the 2013 draft on him with that in mind.
The athletic tools are there, without a doubt. It’s up to Jones whether or not the techniques and other fine points can complete the package.
“If I can keep my hands moving, that’s the last-effort sack I can probably get,” he said. “I may not get it every time, but hopefully I’ll get some pressure.”