Josh Jones’ best performances in his rookie season came when he was playing linebacker. The Green Bay Packers’ game against the Cincinnati Bengals in week three was an example of Jones at his finest — he was flying to the football and had opportunities to blitz the quarterback, racking up 12 total tackles and two sacks.
Looking back at that game underscores the first-year safety/linebacker’s skill set. Rather than reading and processing too much information, playing the Nitro linebacker spot allowed Jones to react to what was in front of him and use his impressive athleticism to close on the football. All in all, Jones’ best games came when he was used more in that role rather than on the back end at safety.
However, injuries forced Jones back to safety for much of the second half of the 2017 season. The cornerback position’s continued struggles forced Morgan Burnett into the slot for much of the year, leaving Kentrell Brice to man the vacated safety spot. But when Brice was lost for the season, the Packers’ coaches had little choice but to shift Jones back to safety in his place. With the alternative being to bring Burnett back and leave an undrafted rookie in the slot, it was an understandable move. Unfortunately for Jones, he struggled with coverage responsibilities for much of the remainder of the year.
Now, with Brice presumably back to 100% to start spring practices and Burnett having departed for Pittsburgh in free agency, questions arise about the plans for the safety position opposite Ha Ha Clinton-Dix — who struggled mightily in his own right last season. According to head coach Mike McCarthy, the Packers plan to train Jones exclusively at the safety position in spring practices: “We’re going to start him in the safety room this year, that will be the starting point,” he said via Packersnews.com.
This writer, and others at Acme Packing Company, have argued that Jones should be a weak-side linebacker full-time given the results of the 2017 season. It’s not uncommon in recent years for bigger safeties with Jones’ build to make that switch full-time; the Rams’ Mark Barron is listed at 6-foot-2 and 225 while Deone Bucannon of the Cardinals goes 6-foot-1 and 211 pounds, and Jones fits in just fine among those players at 6-foot-2 and 220. Even Telvin Smith of the Jaguars, who has always been considered a weak-side linebacker, shows up on the roster at 6-foot-3 and 215. Furthermore, the explosive development of Blake Martinez at middle linebacker suggests that he and Jones could be an excellent pairing.
Instead, the Packers seem intent on keeping Jones as an option at safety despite the head coach professing a strong belief in Brice to become a starting-caliber player. McCarthy said that Brice will “be right there in the middle of it,” referring to the competition for the starting job, while complimenting him on his communication skills.
It seems for now that the Packers intend to make it a two-man competition for the starting job in OTAs and minicamp. Even if Jones does progress enough to win the job, however, McCarthy still envisions some roles for him as a linebacker, saying “there will be packages where he may have other opportunities.”
Ultimately, the decision to play Jones at safety in the spring may be as much to determine just what he is capable of as anything. He has put success at Nitro linebacker on tape, while struggling on the back end, so the coaching staff may be using the offseason practices as a gauge on whether or not Jones can be counted on at safety moving forward with a full-time move to linebacker as their backup plan.
Of course, the upcoming NFL Draft could easily shake up the depth chart further. If Florida State’s Derwin James falls to 14 or if the team lands a player like Stanford’s Justin Reid in round two, that could turn all of these plans on their head.
Ultimately, however, a lineup of Brice at safety and Jones at linebacker appears capable of being a more explosive and productive one than with Jones on the back end and Jake Ryan, for example, manning the Will. Whether the coaching staff agrees with that assessment, however, should largely be determined by the players’ performances this spring.