Pittsburgh Steelers fans have been and understandably continue to be excited about first-year outside linebacker Howard Jones, who managed to stick on the practice squad for the entirety of the 2014 season after being signed by the team as an undrafted free agent.
As I wrote previously in an article pertaining to the unfortunate suicide of former Steeler Adrian Robinson recently, this team’s fan base has an especial affinity for underdog pass rushers, a tendency no doubt largely stemming from the wildly successful career of James Harrison, who at 37 is still playing with the team.
There’s no denying that Jones did enough during his rookie preseason to earn the opportunity to stick on the practice squad. He recovered three fumbles, returning one for a touchdown. While he was not the cause of those fumbles, he showed a keen nose for the ball, which was especially evident on his third fumble recovery.
Steelers fans are excited about what he can produce on the defensive side of the ball. While he was not overly productive outside of the fumbles during that preseason, he flashed some potential, particularly as he was able to show his speed off the line of scrimmage, which will give him an edge in the pass rush.
The truth of the matter is, however, that what he is able to do on defense probably won’t matter all that much. If he wants to make the 53-man roster this time around, he will have to do what he did on special teams last preseason, and perhaps even up his game.
He has to hope that he can outplay Terence Garvin in order to claim the special teams-designated linebacker roster spot, because otherwise, he must perform so extraordinarily that he forces the team’s hand to carry a very rare 10th linebacker on a unit that is increasingly emphasizing the secondary.
Jones has the height at 6’4”, but he certainly needs to put on weight in order to have a future as a defensive contributor. His lack of size and strength was on display in his work against the run during the preseason, and he also struggled to disengage from tackles on the pass rush once contacted.
The point being, he has not shown that he can be an NFL-ready defensive contributor, irrespective of one’s personal ambitions for his future success. Part of that is adding and strength, but at 25, that’s not going to come naturally, which means he needs to be committed to the weight room. Fortunately, he has Harrison to bark him into submission in that area.
The good news is that Jones did flash his potential as a special teams player last season, unlike Robinson, who was kept on the 53-man roster in 2012, uncharacteristically, because the team liked his future potential as a defensive contributor.
As Garvin has shown, you don’t need to have prototypical height and weight to make the team. He is clearly an undersized linebacker, but he has more than earned his keep because of his performance in the third phase of the game. That is clearly Jones’ best hope, not only for potentially making the 53-man roster, but failing that, keeping his spot on the practice squad, which is not guaranteed considering the wealth of competition this year.