Perhaps no position on the Pittsburgh Steelers roster has received more attention than their linebacking corps, both for their depth at inside ‘backer and the fierce competition that should ensue for the starting spots on the outside. Jarvis Jones, James Harrison, Arthur Moats and even rookie Bud Dupree are considered the front-runners to make an impact from outside linebacker this season, but there is one alluring name that is receiving very limited attention entering his second season with the organization.
Howard Jones came to Pittsburgh as an undrafted free agent after starring at DII Shepherd University, where the hybrid edge rusher set the school record for sacks in a career with 34.5 over 48 starts. Jones arrived on the campus of Shepherd as an 185-pound wide receiver, but successfully made the transition to the defensive side of the ball after adding 50 pounds of muscle. There his natural athleticism allowed him to thrive against a lower level of competition, as Jones’ successfully bullied his way into the Shepherd record books. In addition to Jones’ eye-popping sack numbers, he also notched an incredible 71 tackles-for-loss, eight forced fumbles, and four blocked kicks during his .
Few players can boast the raw athleticism that Jones has at linebacker, as the 6’2, 235-pound missile made good on his athletic billing by running a 4.6 flat 40-yard dash and jumping 40.5 inches vertically (he ran between a 4.48-4.53 at his pro day). His three-cone time of 7.16 was among the best in the defensive line group, and he showed enough in the movement drills to project favorably to outside linebacker in the NFL.
Jones typically had his hand down in college, but in Pittsburgh’s defense he has both the length and the burst to be a force off the edge of a 3-4 front from a two-point stance. A versatile player who needed to get stronger heading into college, Jones has now had a full year to invest time into the weight room, pack on muscle, and master the playbook.
Outside of adding some power to his game, Jones’ hand usage and technique needed a lot of work entering the NFL. Offensive tackles no longer were knocked off balance by his long reach, or kept on their heels simply by Jones’ quick feet like they were in college. Instead Jones will have to continue to master the more technical aspects of the game, including how to use his hands to combat linemen’s punches and how to take on blocks with the proper shoulder so as not to get overwhelmed by larger opponents. His football intelligence came under fire quite a bit during the pre-draft process, so if there is one area that is his un-doing, that could be it.
Nevertheless Jones didn’t hesitate to make his presence felt in the preseason last year, scoring on a 28-yard fumble return for a touchdown in the Steelers first exhibition contest against the New York Giants. In the next game against the Buffalo Bills, Jones recovered another fumble and added three solo stops on the day as well, continuing to show a nose for the football off the edge. While relegated to practice squad duty for the remainder of the 2014 campaign, the promise Jones’ displayed while on the field likely did not go unnoticed.
The linebacker corps for Pittsburgh is undoubtedly crowded, as the aforementioned four, Lawrence Timmons, Sean Spence, Ryan Shazier, and Vince Williams are very likely to make the team. That leaves possibly one more spot that will probably be competed for by the likes of Jordan Zumwalt, Terence Garvin, and Jones, among several others. Jones ability to contribute on special teams is a bonus he shares with Garvin and likely Zumwalt, but the raw potential and athleticism the Shepherd linebacker provides may be enough to bump him over his competitors.
I’m not promising that Jones makes the team, or even that he deserves to make the team, but I’d be lying if I said that I thought he couldn’t. I’ve seen enough on tape and in limited preseason action to be intrigued by Jones’ ability to bend the edge and make plays in space. There will be a fierce competition, and the winner will earn his spot diligently, but don’t count Jones out of the race just yet. I believe the Shepherd star has a thing or two to show Pittsburgh before Week 1 rolls around.