LSU's speedy Deion Jones turns heads as NFL turns toward smaller LBs

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Deion Jones ran so fast at LSU’s pro day, he even surprised himself.

“I planned on going fast, but I did not think I was gonna go that fast. That was crazy, to tell you the truth,” said Jones, who was clocked as low as 4.38 seconds in the 40-yard dash on Monday -- nearly a full 10th of a second faster than any other linebacker at last month's NFL scouting combine and much faster than the 4.59 he had posted in Indianapolis.

The time was confirmed by at least one scout in attendance, though another had Jones a bit slower. ESPN analyst Phil Savage confirmed that he timed Jones at 4.38 seconds and 4.42 seconds on his two runs. And Savage said when scouts compared notes afterward, several had Jones in the high 4.3s and low 4.4s.

“Not a lot of linebackers in history will run like that,” LSU coach Les 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.”

Jones, who has mostly been projected as a second- or third-round prospect, credited the home-field advantage. He said he felt a lot more comfortable after nerves admittedly got the best of him in Indianapolis, even though his 4.59 seconds was still the fourth-fastest among linebackers.

“I clocked real slow at the combine, and it was personal this time. ... I was heated,” said Jones, who also said he and LSU defensive back Jalen Mills both felt the same way. Mills also dropped his time from 4.61 at the combine to somewhere between 4.48 and 4.51 seconds on Monday. “We went back and trained, and we were like, ‘That’s not us, bro.’”

But as dynamic as Jones was Monday, speed never has been a concern with him.

After all, his nickname is “DeBo” -- a combination of Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson.

The bigger hurdles for Jones will be his size (6-foot-1, 221 pounds on Monday, 222 at the combine, 219 at the Senior Bowl) and the fact that he only started for one full season at LSU.

But his timing has been impeccable. Not only did he have a breakout year as a senior (a team-high 100 tackles and 13.5 tackles for loss, plus five sacks and two interceptions). But more than ever, the NFL is opening its arms to smaller linebackers who are considered assets in pass coverage now that the pass-happy league is playing nickel and dime defense about 70 percent of the time.

Jones said Monday that he is well aware of the recent successes of guys such as the Arizona Cardinals’ Deone Bucannon (211 pounds), the Jacksonville Jaguars’ Telvin Smith (223) and former LSU teammate Kwon Alexander of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (227) are helping to open the door. Former safety Mark Barron (213) thrived last year when he was moved to outside linebacker for the St. Louis Rams.

Last year, the Carolina Panthers drafted 230-pound linebacker Shaq Thompson -- and the only thing that kept him from playing more was the fact he had to wait behind veteran Thomas Davis, a former safety who weighs 235.

“I would say there absolutely is (less of a stigma),” said Savage, a former NFL general manager and personnel director. “As the game has evolved into more of a spread-out, open-space game, these linebackers that are athletic enough to play in coverage, it's going to keep you on the field more.”

Savage pointed out that Jones can play on third down and also “fourth down” since he excelled throughout his LSU career on special teams.

“The question is where and how does he fit on first and second down?” Savage said. “I think he’s a 4-3 Will, and he could play maybe the weakside inside backer in a 3-4 if he could gain 10 pounds.”

“If he can hold up, which he showed he could do throughout this season, you want those types of players on the field,” said longtime NFL safety Ryan Clark, another former LSU standout who does analysis for ESPN. “You put him in the right scheme to where he’s covered up and not having to make or fight off to make too many tackles, those guys can make plays sideline to sideline. I think the league is moving more toward that.”

The Saints could certainly use a linebacker like that after they struggled so mightily in pass coverage at every level last season.

And they should know Jones better than most, considering he's a New Orleans native who prepped at Jesuit High School before playing at LSU. Jones joked that his kid sister wanted to call the Saints to tell them to draft him. Jones and some of his teammates were scheduled to have dinner with the Saints on Monday.

“Obviously going to Jesuit and LSU, that’d be a nice story in New Orleans. You know, we’d love to have some LSU players on our team, and certainly he’d be a great candidate,” said Saints general manager Mickey Loomis, who cited a former undersized Pro Bowl linebacker he had years ago with the Seattle Seahawks, Rufus Porter.

"I think there has always been a place for those guys if they have other special attributes, like speed or intelligence or those sorts of things," Loomis said. "Although, look, let’s face it, we’re playing sub defenses 60, 65 percent of the time, so it’s become more of a specialized game than it was 20 years ago.

“Sean (Payton) tells me all the time, ‘Tell me what this guy does well, and I’ll find a way to take advantage of it.’”