GREEN BAY — As the Green Bay Packers officially kick off their offseason program Tuesday — one day later than scheduled because of, literally, the storm of the century that dropped the most snow on the area in 130 years — Josh Jones might be the player who’ll benefit most from it.
And, given the likelihood he’ll play a vital role in the Packers’ defense in 2018, the team needs him to take advantage.
Having eschewed re-signing safety Morgan Burnett — last month, the ninth-year vet signed a three-year, $14.35 million contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers that included just $4.25 million in guaranteed money and could easily have been matched by Green Bay had the team wanted to keep him — it’s clear the Packers are counting on Jones to make a significant contribution in his second season.
“I think he’s another one of those guys that has the ability to be an impact player,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said during last month’s NFL Meetings in Florida.
“We probably tried to do a little bit too much with him last year, you know?”
Jones, a second-round pick last year out of North Carolina State, played a whopping 731 snaps as a rookie, in part because of Burnett’s injury issues (he missed four games with assorted leg issues) and partially because the Packers were enamored with his versatility. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Jones ran the 40-yard dash in 4.41 seconds at last year’s NFL scouting combine, giving him the size and speed combination to play linebacker or safety in the Packers’ system.
As it turned out, McCarthy admitted, the coaches likely asked too much of a rookie in Jones’ position. While playing in all 16 games, he finished with one interception, two sacks and seven pass break-ups, and he made a critical, game-changing mistake in the Packers’ Dec. 17 loss to Carolina — the game in which quarterback Aaron Rodgers returned from his broken collarbone only to see the team eliminated from playoff contention by the Panthers.
On the play, which ended up being a 30-yard Cam Newton-to-Greg Olsen touchdown pass to start the second half, Jones got caught looking into the backfield and was flat-footed when Olsen sprinted past him down the seam, wide open for the easy score. Up 14-10 at the time, the Packers never recovered and lost 31-24.
“You want him to make that play, and it’s a critical play in that situation,” ex-Packers safeties coach Darren Perry said at the time. “Those are some of the growing pains that you go through when you have young guys out there and so forth. Josh has worked his butt off and he spends a great deal of time in the meeting rooms and going over things and so forth. Sometimes it just doesn’t translate.”
Perry left the staff during the offseason, so Jones will be taught by secondary coach Jason Simmons, defensive passing-game coordinator Joe Whitt and new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine this season. Jones will learn more about how he fits into Pettine’s scheme and what his role will be as the offseason program transitions into individual position workouts in Phase II and organized team activity practices in Phase III.
With the hope of streamlining the process of getting Jones acclimated to the new system, McCarthy said the coaches plan on holding off on teaching him multiple positions — for now.
“We’re going to start him in the safety room this year. (That) will be the starting point,” McCarthy said. “(But) it’s like anything, there will be packages where he may have other opportunities.”
The Packers also like Kentrell Brice as another option to replace Burnett, and they could use Brice as one of the safeties who plays back alongside Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the nickel and dime packages and use Jones in a hybrid linebacker role like the one he and Burnett played last season.
For now, though, the focus is on getting Brice, who finished the season on injured reserve and missed the final 10 games with a significant ankle injury, and Jones comfortable in the new system and going from there. The offseason program will be vital to both.
“KB, he’ll be right there in the middle of it. … I look for him to fight for a starting position,” McCarthy said. “They’re both aggressive to the line of scrimmage. You like that in both of them. KB has more experience on the back end of it. In fairness to Josh, we moved him around a lot. But they’re both young. I look for those guys to be big parts of our defense.”