Speedy linebacker fits a changing mold at the next level
By JAMES MORAN
Tiger Rag Associate Editor
About a year ago at this time, Deion Jones was a three-year special teamer working to secure the starting outside linebacker spot left vacant when Kwon Alexander declared early for the NFL Draft.
Today it’s Jones who appears in line for a substantial pay day.
In the time that’s passed, Jones played himself into a Butkus Award finalist at outside linebacker, wowed coaches and scouts alike at the Senior Bowl and watched his stock rise comfortably into second day of the draft range.
The linebacker’s ascent up team’s boards kicked into another gear Friday at LSU’s annual pro timing day — literally.
Having already posted an improved vertical jump, an audible buzz grew from the assembled crowd of NFL personnel, family, teammates and media members as Jones galloped through his first 40-yard dash.
It was loud enough to drown out the trademark hum of the florescent lighting and the rapid-fire cluster of stopwatch clicks by those scouts and coaches in attendance who still prefer to keep hand time.
All eyes peered in earnest toward the video board set up on the far side of the indoor practice facility. The results appeared right below Jones’ name: 4.39 seconds, later adjusted to an official 4.4 flat.
It was the improvement Jones knew was possible after posting a fairly pedestrian — and somewhat disappointing — 4.59-second mark at the NFL Combine last month. In fact, after completing his individual workout, Jones said 4.40 was the target he’d set for himself coming in.
“I was shooting for 4.4,” Jones said. “That’s what was on my mind. I needed that. I didn’t get it at the combine, so it was personal. I gave it my all.”
Still, mission accomplished, Jones got back in line to run his second attempt.
“I heard my homeboy’s reaction and I just looked up,” Jones began.
4.38 seconds, official.
“Ooh, I wasn’t expecting that.”
It’s not often a player is able to shave more than two full tenths of a second off of a 40-time in a mere matter of weeks.
There’s something to be said for the comfort of home field advantage — LSU’s indoor facility is said to be a fast turf — but Jones attributed the improvement to an uptick in attention to detail. He’d closed his eyes and swerved while running under the bright lights and cameras in Indianapolis. “I went all the way to the right, then I went all the way to the left. It was terrible.”
Jones spent a large portion of the past two weeks practicing running in a straight line. He trained in Florida alongside fellow Pro Day participants Jalen Mills and Lamar Louis, as well as Alexander, who flew into Baton Rouge to take in his former teammates’ workouts.
“You want to ask me about Deion?” the second-year Buccaneer linebacker laughed. “Shoot, I’d want to ask me about Deion, too.”
“With DeBo, it doesn’t surprise me about him running (a 4.38),” Louis said. “He always was a runner.”
Word had already reached Les Miles about Jones’ blazing time before the coach broke away from his extensive film study to take in the day’s festivities and meet with reporters.
“Not a lot of linebackers in history will run like that,” Miles said. “That guy may be the fastest linebacker that I personally have been around that had any size to him at all. He’s absolutely the first. That fits into the NFL game as a guy that can move and make plays and has ball skills. He’s going to fit right into the NFL game.”
Even just a few years ago that wouldn’t be the case.
Measuring in at a shade under 6-foot-1 and weighing 221 pounds at the combine, Jones doesn’t fill the traditional NFL mold for a linebacker. In the old days, scouts would consider him “undersized” at best. At worst, too small to draft.
But the game is changing.
And, as a result, so too is the mold.
The flood of speed and spread principles into NFL offenses has effectively made the massive, prodding linebacker a thing of the past. The game is no longer played in a phone booth, and linebackers who can’t both run with tight ends down the field and cover backs coming out of the backfield are a major liability.
Carolina Panthers star Luke Kuechly is the posterchild for this modern generation of athletic linebackers who perform as well in coverage duty as they do against the run. That emphasis on playing in space has led to a wave of quick, smallish linebackers.
“There’s a lot of guys that opened the door for small linebackers,” Jones said. “The game is played fast, and they’re looking for guys that play fast also.”
Both Alexander and Tampa Bay teammate Lavonte David play at similar height and weight to Jones. He also mentioned Jacksonville’s Telvin Smith, who plays at 218 pounds, as a guy he sees some of himself in. Both Jones and Louis gushed about Arizona Cardinal’s linebacker/safety hybrid, Deone Bucannon, who plays at 6-foot-1 and 206 pounds.
“That gives guys like us some enthusiasm,” said Louis, a smallish backer in his own right. “There’s a lot of smaller guys playing bigger roles for teams now in the NFL. I do think they’re starting to transition. Especially with those spread offenses, we’ve got to find ways to get guys like me on the field.”
Jones’ greatest strengths — his speed and range — are both at a premium in today’s NFL. He’ll need some technical seasoning, having been a just a one-year starter in college, but he possesses the physical tools to develop into the type of impact player as his aforementioned predecessors.
While the blazing 40 time probably still won’t be enough to get Jones into the first round, it may have secured him as being taken near the top of the round two.
Then again, maybe his stock will continue to soar. There has always been something irresistibly tantalizing to NFL brain trusts about top-end speed.