IRVING, Texas -- Rod Marinelli is in his 20th year as a coach in the NFL. As he scanned his mental library considering all the rookie defensive backs he has coached, Byron Jones stands at the top of the list.
“I can’t remember one [better] as a rookie,” the Dallas Cowboys' defensive coordinator said.
Jones will start his second straight game at free safety Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles. In his first start last week, taking over for J.J. Wilcox, he had five tackles and a pass breakup against the Seattle Seahawks. He played every defensive snap.
In two of the past three games he has been mostly responsible for defending two of the better tight ends in the league in Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham. Against the New York Giants, he was able to break up a middle-of-the-field deep ball to Rueben Randle. Against the Seahawks he covered ground to break up a throw near the sideline to Graham.
“Range, he’s got great range,” Marinelli said. “For a rookie to play corner, he’s played nickel, he has played strong safety in the box and now he’s playing free safety. It’s unbelievable. I’ve never been around that.”
When the Cowboys drafted Jones in the first round last May it was as a cornerback with the possibility of a move to safety in the future. The health of Morris Claiborne allowed the Cowboys to expose him more to other spots in the offseason and training camp, but they did not want to overload him too much.
“I mean he’s really in-tuned his technique,” Marinelli said. “And the thing about it that’s tough, he’s played technique at corner, he’s played technique at nickel, he’s played technique over a tight end. Now it’s the technique as a free safety, which they’re all different. And he’s done ... just a very conscientious guy.”
Jones is still looking for his first NFL interception. In fact, the Cowboys have only three picks on the year. Marinelli thinks the takeaways will come for the whole defense and Jones in particular.
“I don’t know all the rookies, I don’t keep track, I can’t believe that anybody’s playing as well,” Marinelli said. “If you watch tape, the guy is really playing well. You watch football tape and what we’re asking him to do, he’s playing well. He needs to get the ball. That’s what’s going to separate him is start taking the ball away.”