Josh Jones’ public trade demand Tuesday offers a fitting metaphor for the Green Bay Packers’ safety position for years. Jones represents Ted Thompson’s failures to remedy a gaping hole that has burned deeply into this roster ever since Nick Collins’ early injury-forced retirement. After signing Adrian Amos and trading up for Darnell Savage, at the very least Brian Gutekunst undertook considerable efforts to remake the safety position.
Jones, the last vestige of the capital Thompson invested at the position, now wants out. It’s been made clear the Packers aren’t particularly interested in using Jones either, as evidenced in Mike Pettine’s resolve to try nearly every possible player ahead of him last season. Kentrell Brice and Jermaine Whitehead shouldn’t all be playing ahead of your former second-round pick unless the team views him as a lost cause.
Perhaps the team will view Jones as they did the remaining staff of Mike McCarthy after Matt LaFleur got the job: salt the earth so that nothing old grows back. Gutekunst would try to trade Jones and if no suitable partner calls, he’s given his walking papers. Under different circumstances, the move from the Packers would have been to say “tough luck, you’re under contract,” with the understanding the market likely won’t produce a wealth of suitors. But this team already tried every excuse it could find not to put him on the field.
They didn’t trust him last year and then spent an offseason rebuilding the position he was supposed to be playing but wasn’t.
Josh Jones told me last year he never got an explanation for why he wasn’t playing more, but his focus at the time wasn’t the past. He wanted to help the team win. As Kentrell Brice struggled, Jones languished on special teams, but began making plays. He appeared to be playing the role of good soldier. Yet once Brice went down Jermaine Whitehead’s role elevated, not Jones’ and Pettine never found a role for Jones in this defense.
Clearly, part of the responsibility to carve out a home for the player falls on the player. Jones never forced his way into more snaps by playing well. His best game has been his first game, where he was all over the field against the Bengals as a rookie back in 2016. But he lacked the instincts to make plays as a box defender, the read-and-react ability to play in the deep half, and while he’s a useful man coverage player, Pettine prizes versatility among all else.
Brice or Whitehead were never truly better options than Jones. There could be more to the story here than just on-field struggles, because it’s not like these other players were any better. Brice, for example, gave up three touchdowns in just 29 targets with a passer rating over 150 when quarterbacks tested him. That’s awful. Jones’ 98.7 passer rating when targeted is nothing to write home about, but it was significantly better than Whitehead’s and Brice’s.
A quick aside: Ibraheim Campbell, for his part, played extremely well in limited snaps, showing good feel in coverage and immediately becoming the position group’s most reliable tackler. An injury ended his season, but don’t be surprised if the Packers bring him back in 2019 once he’s physically able. However, he played more of a free safety role opposite Jones rather than taking snaps away from him.
One of the strangest parts of this saga was how passive Gutekunst was last offseason when Jones was slated to be a major contributor. No draft capital, no free agent moves, and then a reliance on UDFAs and street free agents. If they really believed Jones was borderline unplayable, how could they have gone into the 2018 season believing they were set with a safety they ended up trading and some undrafted guys? That was true at the time and looks even more bizarre given how aggressively this front office went about adding to the position this offseason.
Much like in 2018, when the safety market proved to be extremely soft, Jones would be competing for spots with a host of former preferred starters around the league. Eric Berry, Tre Boston, Mike Mitchell, Glover Quin, Darian Stewart, Mike Adams, Ron Parker, Kurt Coleman and others remain on the market. Why would a team give up draft capital for a safety his own team didn’t want to play in favor of simply signing one of these other, more established players?
There’s a simple case that Packers should deal Jones for whatever they can get, like some conditional late Day 3 pick, and sign one of these veterans outright with the understanding that Amos and Savage represent the priority starters at the position.
What we need Pettine to answer relates to his preferred style of play. Did he play big nickel last year because Antonio Morrison can’t cover and Oren Burks wasn’t ready, or is that simply how Pettine wants to run this defense? His previous experience suggests the latter. In that case, Green Bay without Jones doesn’t have the bodies to play that way unless Tramon Williams slots in as that roving nickel safety role, something he could be well-suited to do considering how well Savage and Amos can play in the box. Those three as interchangeable pieces offer the kind of malleability Pettine prizes.
Part of the answer may lie in the aforementioned Burks. When the Packers drafted Josh Jones, they stated from Day 1 he was going to be a box player, the guy competing to be the dime linebacker. Injuries forced him to play more safety, but go back and watch him against Cincinnati in that game where he really shined and you’ll see a player who made all his best plays from the box.
Thompson drafted Jones and in Gutekunst’s first draft, he trades up for a player who ostensibly plays the same position, or at least who could do so. The writing may have been on the wall for Jones at the moment Green Bay turned in the card on Burks.
Being able to play Burks next to Martinez would allow Pettine to play more traditional nickel, mitigating some of the size issues that prevented the Packers from being a sound run defense last season, as well as disguising more of their looks. Instead of taking Morrison off the field to put a safety on it — in this case a safety they didn’t really want to play regardless of who it was — the Packers could keep Burks on the field and theoretically get the same kind of versatility.
Despite the active offseason from Gutekunst, he didn’t add to a thin linebacker core, or bring in a “box” safety, no matter what anyone tells you about Amos. That could signal faith in Oren Burks. Had it not been for the way the team actively subverted Jones’ role during the season, we may have had reason to believe his presence played a role in that calculation. Much more likely, the Packers added to the back end safety rotation to add players who can play the way Pettine prefers, guys who can cover in the deep half or be factors in the run game from the box.
Jones struggled in two-deep safety looks and never quite got the hang of inside linebacker play. As a blitzer shooting gaps and in man coverage, he could be useful, but the Packers clearly wanted more. They signed safeties they like and may have already drafted a replacement for the position Jones was meant to play.
A trade may truly be best for both sides, even if it’s unlikely the Packers will get useful compensation for him. That said, Green Bay showed it had little intention of actually finding a way to use Jones on the field so forcing him to say feels unduly punitive to the player. Neither side seems to want to be involved with the other. Moving on signals the end of a forgettable era in Packers safety play while allowing Jones to find a new home elsewhere.