Even with the presence of high-profile new starters at tight end, right guard, and cornerback, the story dominating Green Bay Packers training camp focuses on Josh Jones, a rookie defender competing for a sub-package role. Already, the hype surrounding Jones risks pushing expectations into wildly unrealistic territory.
An athletic safety from N.C. State, Jones has spent considerably more time working as an off-ball linebacker than a defensive back since arriving in Green Bay this spring. While he spent time in the box during his college career, this role represents a new challenge for the 6-foot-2, 220-pound defender. The Packers purpose in drafting him seems obvious -- they believe he can resolve the defense's longstanding issues with slot receivers and tight ends working the middle of the field.
Thus far, the Packers' intuition does not appear to have led them astray. Jones not only came away with the first interception of camp, but he added a would-be sack and pass breakup to his "stat line" during the padded sessions. With the defense yet to send any significant time in its base 3-4 alignment, Jones looks ever more part of the regular unit the Seattle Seahawks expect to see in Week 1.
Even as a rookie learning effectively a new position, Jones can meaningfully affect games out of the gate. Over the past two years, Green Bay's main answer to dynamic tight ends and slot receivers was linebacker Joe Thomas. While Thomas played his best football down the stretch of the 2016 season, he remains a limited player in pass coverage, a fact exploited by the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC title game. For the Packers to overcome the prolific offenses they will face in the playoffs, they must tighten up the middle of the field with more athletic and heady defenders.
Jones certainly checks the first of those boxes, ranking in the 86th percentile for SPARQ, according to 3 Sigma Athlete. However, no rookie seamlessly transitions into Dom Capers' defense, a scheme that ranks among the most complex across the league. Capers' playbook will put Jones' ability to internalize information through the ringer, and likely result in the hybrid defender making mental mistakes and missing adjustments at times.
And even if Jones absorbs the scheme quicker than anticipated, his playing style does come with some risk. Jones seemed to genuinely relish hitting people during his N.C. State career. Such an approach leaves little margin for error at safety; it leaves even less at linebacker where defender and receiver begin each play even closer together.
All of which underscores some of the growing pains Jones will encounter as a rookie. Between adjusting to a new, prominent role, learning a new playbook, and acclimating to the speed of the NFL, Jones has a lot on his plate. He might develop into a reliable playmaker and lynchpin of the pass coverage, he will make his share of mistakes over the first few months of the season, perhaps continuing to do so into 2018. That risk/reward proposition could still reward the Packers, but it could frustrate fans expecting the next Derrick Brooks.
More realistically, Jones can serve as part rather than the entirety of a larger solution to the Packers' pass-coverage problems. Morgan Burnett can and will spend some of his time as a de facto linebacker while the Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins expect to see most of their snaps in the slot. Full-time linebackers Jake Ryan and Blake Martinez need to further develop in coverage as well.
Still, if Green Bay uses Jones judiciously and allows him to expand his role as he proves able, the cavernous hole in the middle of the defense could downsize into a few tiny pockets by season's end, the time when the Packers lean on the unit most.