GREEN BAY – The Packers and Datone Jones each wanted the same thing midway through last season.
The former first-round pick was generating pressure as an interior rusher in the dime defense, but the depth on the defensive line was limiting his overall snaps.
So going into Minnesota on Nov. 22, the Packers decided to transition Jones into a hybrid elephant role that would see him occasionally line up from a standing position as an outside linebacker.
With only three practices to ready for the move, Jones turned in a career game against the Vikings in recording two sacks and a pass deflection on 31 defensive snaps.
It was enough to convince the Packers that’s where he should stay, and Jones couldn’t be happier about the arrangement.
“I’m loving it,” Jones said. “A situation happens like this, you can jump in there and boom – you could fill a role and play it. Now, I’m excited because I actually do get a full season to learn coverages, learn how to cover tight ends and running backs. Just rush from different angles.”
How excited was he about the move? An energetic Jones posted a video on his Twitter account of him running up steps only a few hours after Head Coach Mike McCarthy confirmed to reporters the NFL owners’ meeting in March that he’d continue his transition this offseason.
“After today’s news, I had to start conditioning,” Jones wrote on the post.
That wasn’t the only thing he did to prepare for the move.
Jones kept his training regimen mostly the same, but he made significant changes to his offseason diet. He cut out starches and wheat, trading in pasta for more protein and vegetables.
Jones hasn’t completely altered his body like Mike Neal did when he moved to outside linebacker in 2012. While Jones won’t go into specifics about whether he’s under his listed weight of 285 pounds, he has seen a drop in his overall body fat.
Less fat means more speed…and abs, of course.
“I have a six-pack now,” Jones joked. “I feel good. I’m trying to do whatever it takes to be able to compete, go out on Sunday and display what I can do.”
It’s not to say Jones won’t continue to rush on the line like he did for his first 2½ seasons. The Packers may need to lean on him early in the year with a young group of linemen.
Still, he and the team are excited about the possibilities the move outside presents. He flashed big-play potential during his first 44 regular-season games, but ankle injuries often have stood in the way of him contributing on a more consistent level.
Given his size and length, the decision to try him on the edge only seemed logical to several of his teammates, including defensive lineman Mike Daniels.
“That guy is a natural outside. That’s where he’s supposed to be,” Daniels said. “You can tell he definitely feels more comfortable. He’s playing more physical and I absolutely love it. I look forward to getting him out there. When we get into the three-man front and Datone is the outside linebacker, it’s almost like we’re in a 4-3. It’s great.”
Jones has 74 tackles and eight sacks to show for his first three NFL seasons, but he believes the transition should benefit his game like it previously did for Neal and Julius Peppers upon his signing with the Packers in 2014.
Jones participated in individual drills with the rest of the outside linebackers and took reps from a two-point stance regularly during the offseason program.
As much as it helped Jones to get thrown into the fire last season, defensive coordinator Dom Capers believes it’s even more critical to use spring workouts to fully understand the position.
It’s similar to what Clay Matthews did when asked to play inside linebacker during the latter half of 2014. He then spent the following offseason in the inside linebackers’ room.
“I thought he did a good job with the repetitions that he had last year,” said Capers of Jones during OTAs. “I think this time right now is really valuable to Datone because he’s getting a chance to work on things you don’t get a chance to work on when you’re in-season and you have to make that transition from one week to another.”
Jones enjoyed learning the finer aspects of the position this spring, whether it was dropping into coverage, setting the edge against the run or getting used to rushing from a different angle.
Sure, new terminology can be a bit “scary,” but he also hasn’t been shy about picking the brains of Peppers, Matthews and Nick Perry.
“You have to be able to go from speed to power like that,” said Jones, snapping his fingers. “You have to be able to convert from playing the run to the pass in a blink of an eye. It takes time to really understand and takes time to learn it.”
Snaps won’t be guaranteed this summer. The Packers have a multitude of edge-rushing options on top of Matthews moving back outside. Along with Peppers and Perry, there’s also third-round pick Kyler Fackrell, Jayrone Elliott and recently signed veteran Lerentee McCray competing for roles.
The importance of this upcoming season isn’t lost on Jones. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year and knows it’s up to him to show he can be a consistent playmaker.
He feels he’s in the best position to do it.
“I feel like you have to prove it no matter what,” Jones said. “I’m excited. I can play multiple positions. We’ve all seen it before from the outside linebacker all the way down to where the center snaps the ball.”