At the outset of the offseason, Mike McCarthy made his intensions for Datone Jones clear.
McCarthy's Green Bay Packers, unable to extract the quality of play from Jones they anticipated after selecting him 26th overall in the 2013 NFL Draft, decided to make his shift to outside linebacker more permanent. In order to handle the unique strains and responsibilities of his new position, the former interior defensive lineman had to shed some weight.
According multiple accounts, Jones has put in the necessary work to remake his body.
NFL Network's Mike Garafolo reported Jones' weight loss as a 15 pound loss. ESPN's Adam Caplan gave a similar figure, adding that the fourth-year man dropped his body fat percentage from 25 to 16.5. On the field, Jones looks a lot closer to teammates Nick Perry and Jayrone Elliott than Dean Lowry, a rookie expected to play Jones' old 5-tech position.
While Jones' new physique should serve him well in his new edge-rushing role, it could leaves the Packers perilously thin along the defensive line early in the season.
When Week 1 rolls around, Green Bay already knows it will take the field without B.J. Raji (retirement) and Mike Pennel (suspension). That leaves veterans Mike Daniels and Letroy Guion as likely starters with rookie first-rounder Kenny Clark the presumptive nose tackle. Unless Jones continues to work along the interior at his lighter weight, the team currently will have just two defensive linemen on the opening-week roster with NFL regular-season snaps on their résumé.
Can Jones continue to take snaps at the 5-tech after losing 15 pounds? In the Packers' base defense, doing so presents considerable challenges. Even before the body makeover, Jones fell on the lighter side for a 3-4 defensive lineman, often taking fewer snaps in the trenches near the end of the season as he fell below 280 pounds. In Green Bay's base defense, 5-techs must control two gaps instead of one, placing a priority on mass to clog up lanes and free up the linebackers. Jones could perhaps contribute along the interior on obvious passing downs -- the Packers move Julius Peppers up to the line in such situations -- but he remains an unattractive option there on early downs.
Still, the Packers may have to play Jones along the defensive line anyway. On Wednesday, head coach Mike McCarthy specifically stated that the team plans to give him opportunities to play the all over the defensive front. That may say more about Green Bay's lack of experienced alternatives early in the season than it does about Jones, who has disappointed since entering the league.
Conversely, Jones' weight loss and the Packers' lack of proven depth opens the door for the handful of young defensive lineman on the 90-man roster. Lowry possesses the best physical build for the 5-tech as well as a nearly peerless athletic profile. Christian Ringo cuts a similar image to Daniels and has a full year of practice-squad service under his belt. The team also signed a handful of undrafted free agents along the defensive line, including Tyler Kuder and Brian Price. Of the group, half or more could make the opening-week roster.
And if the Packers receive quality play from any of them, Jones can continue to focus on his transition to outside linebacker, a best-case scenario for both player and team. Jones certainly possesses the physical gifts to become a difference maker, especially with Peppers likely to see another snap reduction as he nears his 37th birthday.
But if the youngsters don't step up along the defensive line, the defensive line will look awfully thin, at least until Pennel returns from his four-game ban. With Chris Ivory, Adrian Peterson and Ameer Abdullah on the schedule, the lack of defensive-line depth could Green Bay plenty of headaches.