GREEN BAY, Wis. -- As a rookie, Datone Jones injured his ankle on the first play of his first NFL preseason game. The injury affected him the rest of the year.
Three years later, the Green Bay Packers’ 2013 first-round pick considers himself something of a rookie again, having been moved from the defensive line to “elephant” outside linebacker. And that’s what made his experience -- and performance -- in the Packers’ preseason-opening 17-11 victory over the Cleveland Browns Friday so valuable.
Not only did he stay healthy, he was productive, registering a sack and two other quarterback hits as he adjusted to his position after playing there on an experimental basis down the stretch last season.
“I didn’t know what I was doing at all. I was basically playing off instincts,” Jones said Friday night. “I studied as much as I could last year, but I was thrown in there. You know how things have been in my career. I’m just going to try to make something happen.”
For Jones, who came in as the 26th overall pick, those make-something-happen moments were few and far between. Having started just three of the 44 games he played his first three seasons, he enters 2016 with eight career sacks and mindful that he’s now in a contract year after the Packers declined to pick up his fifth-year option this spring.
“The No. 1 goal is for the team to win, obviously. But second, I know what position I’m in. It’s my contract year. I’m not blind to that,” Jones said. “I love playing football, and at the end of the day, may the best man win. I’m out here competing. I have to go out and show what I can do.”
He’s off to a good start. With veterans Clay Matthews (ankle) and Julius Peppers (rest) not suiting up, the Packers started Nick Perry and Jayrone Elliott at outside linebacker but Jones rotated in on the second series. He also saw action as an interior pass rusher with his hand down -- one of his pressures came from that spot -- and the Packers are hoping to use him in that hybrid role after not re-signing Mike Neal in free agency.
“Datone's having a good camp,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said after the game. “I think the flexibility he has as a player, whether it's playing the 7-technique, 9-technique and [handling] the prototype elephant responsibilities, [or] the ability to play the 3-technique [inside], particularly in the sub packages, I feel very good about where he is.”
Jones played last season at 298 pounds but said Friday night that he now weighs 284. The Packers want him to be light enough on his feet to move fluidly outside while still having enough bulk to anchor inside, and Jones seems to have found a sweet spot on the scale. He’ll be called upon to take some snaps off of Peppers, whom the coaches believe will be even more productive with slightly reduced playing time.
“By putting him outside, he gives you a big, physical guy that can set the edge in the run game and give you pass rush,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “You can’t get short with those guys outside with the way we rotate. We still think Julius can really give us some things -- as you saw last year -- but you have to be cautious not to overplay Julius because we want to be at our best when our best is needed.”
If Capers divvies up Jones’ snaps between defensive tackle in sub packages and outside linebacker in base, sets like he did Friday night, Jones should have ample opportunity to show his value this season. The Packers didn’t pick up Perry’s fifth-year option, either, but the team brought its 2012 first-round pick back on a one-year, $5 million deal this spring and plans to make him a prominent part of the defense.
“I’m just excited the coaches trust me enough to give me that responsibility to play inside and outside,” Jones said. “The coaches challenged me a lot with the position move. It has not been peaches and cream for me. It’s been a crazy learning curve, and I really have to sit myself down and challenge myself as a pro to learn the position and understand coverages and understand personnel [groups] and what I’m seeing and how to approach and attack a guy.
“I’m learning. I’m learning every day. I’m not there yet. I just need to keep working.”