Back in the 2013 NFL Draft, Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones was pegged as a can’t-miss defender, leading the nation in sacks with 14.5 in 2012. His less than spectacular pro day, where he ran a 4.9 in the 40, caused his first round freefall into the laps of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who gladly picked him up with the 17th overall selection. It was the perfect marriage, with the team’s recent departure of stalwart James Harrison, and Jones representing the future at the position. And after all, look at the pro day of Baltimore Raven Terrell Suggs. He ran a sluggish 4.84, a 33-inch vertical and only mustered 19 bench press repetitions, but that hasn’t stopped him from being named an All-Pro or multiple Pro-Bowler.
“When Jones was still on the board at No. 17, it was easy to predict the Steelers scooping him up because he is a natural fit as an edge backer in Dick LeBeau’s 3-4 defense,” said former ESPN Insider Matt Bowen. “Think of the role that James Harrison played for the Steelers, because that’s what Jones will be expected to do as a rookie in Pittsburgh.”
As a rookie, Jones struggled, as many rookies do in Dick LeBeau’s complex scheme. Last season, he started off with a bang, tallying 2 sacks in 3 games before a fractured wrist put him on the shelf. By the time he was healthy, James Harrison was back in the starting lineup, proving even at age 36 he was still a force. Harrison was re-signed last weekend to a two-year deal, providing depth and leadership to a thinned out group. Steelers’ general manager Kevin Colbert recently said that the Jones we all saw in the early stages of the 2014 season should prove that he’s finally coming into his own as a Steelers linebacker.
“Jarvis has to come in and he has to pick up where he left off before he injured his wrist because I really think he was playing very well at that point,” Colbert said. “But to have James there to spell him, push him and compete, we can’t help but benefit from having the two of them.”
True, it’s a nice problem to have, but Colbert recently went on record as saying the right outside linebacker spot is up for grabs, calling it an “open competition.” This, to me, sounds like it may be a make-or-break season for Jones.
“Is this all a good thing for Jarvis Jones? Absolutely, positively not,” said Colin Dunlap of CBS Pittsburgh. “He has been a severe underachiever, there’s really not any other way to put it. This isn’t golf or bowling — guys in the upper reaches of their 30s aren’t supposed to be able to hang with a guy who is 25 at linebacker in the NFL.”
He is correct, however, and in a perfect world, it’s not how the braintrust of the team wants the situation to play out. They would indeed ideally love for Jones to begin living up to his first round pedigree, showing some of the explosion and penchant for wrecking quarterbacks that gave him the name “Dawg Bones Jones” while at Georgia. He would seize the starting spot, allowing Arthur Moats or possibly another draft pick to slide into the opposite spot, allowing Harrison, now 37, to maximize his effectiveness by monitoring his snaps and force Keith Butler and company to find ways to get him onto the field.
But what if he beats out Jones for the starting spot? Because we all know he’s not going to go quietly into the night and roll over for the young linebacker.
“One, you know what he can do and you hope that he can still do it,” Colbert said of Harrison. “The other, you’ve seen flashes and you want to see more. I know in James’ situation he is not going to come in and view himself anything else than starter-capable and that’s why he is who he is.”
That would be the worst nightmare of Jones, and with his playing weight already under scrutiny, it’s hard to imagine the team moving Jones to left outside linebacker, the strong side of the defense. The bottom line is if Harrison proves he can play the position better, which he showed last season he still has it, then he will be the one reaping more playing time.
Is it then time to label Jones a bust? That remains to be seen, but the writing is definitely on the wall for him. The team may even look to add another high edge rusher in the coming draft, even further clouding their situation regarding Jones.
“Whatever depth we add or whatever picks we add in the draft, it’s going to be a nice, competitive situation,” Colbert said of their outside linebackers. “And with coach Butler coordinating the defense, there may be some different combinations and alignments that they use. That’s something we will have to wait and see