With the manner in which the Pittsburgh Steelers have handled their outside linebacker position during this offseason, they have, whether unintentionally or otherwise, turned the 2015 season into a pivotal one in terms of the future of Jarvis Jones, their former first-round draft pick from 2013.
The Steelers had early ambitions for the college SEC sack leader in his rookie season, hoping to start him at right outside linebacker out of the gate before a late preseason injury prevented that from happening. As it turned out, there wasn’t much worth waiting for after making his first start the following week.
In reality, of course, Jones’ rookie season was not terribly different than that had by many young players thrust into prominent positions before they were ready. No doubt it was disappointing, but it wasn’t altogether surprising.
While Jones managed to notch two early sacks last year before getting injured, it is true that he generated little pressure outside of those two plays. When he returned, he was working on scraps and still failed to produce after being slowed by injury.
In the interim between his injury and his return, James Harrison re-emerged to claim his stake for his old starting spot at right outside linebacker, and while general manager Kevin Colbert and head coach Mike Tomlin may not outright come out and say it, he is returning with every intention to maintain that starting spot.
That is just the way he plays, and it will be difficult to get him to change—especially since he earns his snaps with his performance on the field. Nobody can take that away from him, even your former first-round draft pick about which you’re still trying to learn.
It seems as though the Steelers are throwing down the challenge at Jones’ feet: pry the starting job out from Harrison’s claws and it’s yours. That is certainly not an enviable task. And should he fail, it’s hard not to speculate where that leaves him.
Let’s say, hypothetically, that Harrison and Arthur Moats win the starting outside linebacker positions out of the preseason, and Jones is used situationally or rotationally behind both players. He goes through the season in that role, perhaps starting a couple of games for Harrison due to rest or injury, and performs with improvement, but only modestly so.
By this point, Jones will be entering his fourth NFL season, and the team will have to decide whether or not they want to exercise their fifth-year option on him. Jones was not picked in the top 10 of the first round, which means that his fifth-year option would cost the Steelers the average salary of the 3rd-25th-highest paid outside linebackers in the league.
If Jones is unable to crack the starting lineup in his third season, and doesn’t project as a quality starter by his fourth, then the Steelers will have to seriously consider his fifth-year option and whether or not it’s worth it.
The team has walked away from first-round draft picks before, trading Santonio Holmes and allowing Ziggy Hood to sign elsewhere without an offer after his rookie contract expired. They seem to have put Jones in the position this season of helping to make that determination more easily.