Packers' top pick sets sights on playing every down

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By Tyler Dunne
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Wednesday, January 8, 2014

GREEN BAY--The 2013 season was hardly over when Datone Jones started looking ahead to 2014.

Two hours after the Green Bay Packers’ crushing 23-20 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, Jones took to Twitter: “Tough Loss Today…We Left It All On The Field Today … Now Its Time To Get On My Grind… #Impact.”

And cleaning out his locker 12 hours after that, the rookie defensive end was still looking ahead. He won’t call this rookie season a disappointment. But his offseason can’t start soon enough.

The Packers said they wanted the 6-foot-4, 285-pound Jones to be an every-down player before last season. That never happened. Nodding his head, the 26th overall pick says he’ll close that gap beginning now.

“This offseason. It’s going to come with this offseason,” Jones said. “I know it’ll come with this offseason. I’m very excited for this offseason to come back in and get stronger. Probably get my weight up. I’ll see where the coaches want me at.

“And I’m just going to come back a whole other player.”

Weight gain would make sense. Green Bay may be losing one, two, even three wide bodies up front. There’s a good chance this defensive line will look different in 2014. Ryan Pickett, B.J. Raji, Johnny Jolly and C.J. Wilson—a combined 1,305 pounds of mass—are all free agents. However free agency shakes out, the Packers probably will be counting on the first-rounder Jones and fifth-rounder Josh Boyd to take on larger roles.

The two rookies trended in opposite directions this season. Into December, the high pick’s snaps were reduced, the low pick’s snaps were increased.

For a team that always bangs the drum of second-year player development, the Packers sure wouldn’t mind Jones and/or Boyd taking a Mike Daniels-like jump in Year 2.

“I just hope it works out for the best,” Jones said. “Hopefully we can get all of these guys back. It’s a great group of guys. But unfortunately, it doesn’t work like this in the NFL. We knew we’re going to see a whole other team next year.”

Each free agent is at a different juncture. Pickett, who said Green Bay is “the best place to play. I love being here,” is 34 years old. He has played 199 games. If the Packers want him back for another season, ironing out a deal might not be too tiresome. Raji, however, turned down $8 million per season, a source told the Journal Sentinel in mid-November.

Jolly and Wilson are big bodies who could fit into most base 3-4 defenses.

For three long minutes Monday morning, Boyd spoke with his eyes fixated on the floor.

How ready is he, and Jones? That’s a hard question, he says. He seemed reluctant to turn the page, while fully knowing change is imminent.

“With those guys, I see them as big brothers. I see them as leaders,” said Boyd, who had five solo tackles in his final four games. “It’s going to be tough if some of them don’t come back. At the same time, I’m going to do everything I need to do to become a better player here in the off-season. So I feel like as long as we do what we have to do, we’ll be as good or as bad as we want to be.”

Pickett and Raji do a lot that goes unnoticed. That’s the job description.

In the playoff loss to the 49ers—against a large, smashmouth front—both players held their ground in holding Frank Gore to 3.3 yards per carry. In base, Green Bay’s 3-4 needs to count on defensive linemen taking on (and ideally beating) multiple blockers. Players at this size, who can move, aren’t easy to find in the draft, either.

As Jones mentioned, he’d likely need to add weight to get on the field for first and second downs. The Packers hadn’t indicated anything to him yet. When injuries slammed outside linebacker, he played six snaps standing up on Sunday.

Barring a drastic position switch, defensive line is where Jones is needed. Green Bay needs the player who pile-drove Eagles All-Pro tackle Jason Peters into the backfield for a sack.

“I feel I got better. I got a better understanding of how the NFL game is played,” said Jones, who finished with 3 1/2 sacks. “Early on I had a few sacks, I was getting quarterback pressures and a lot of hurries. It is what it is. I didn’t have that much time on the field this year. I was very lucky and very fortunate to have the time that I did have with this veteran group.”

Boyd was a game-day inactive in seven of Green Bay’s first nine games before suddenly playing more than Jones and 2012 second-round pick Jerel Worthy.

Defensive coordinator Dom Capers said Boyd possesses the “size and strength” to play the run in the defense, an apparent point of concern with Jones and the shorter Worthy.

All year, Boyd said, the four veterans stayed on him.

“They just taught me the ways of the game,” Boyd said. “I picked up on it and moved from there. I started growing as a player.”

There is one constant on the defensive line. Daniels. As a sub, inside rusher Daniels racked up 7 1/2 sacks in 17 games.

Beyond him, there are only questions. General manager Ted Thompson must decide who’s worth keeping—at what price—of the four free agents.

Said Jones, “Due to the success that we were having, those guys were pretty much ‘you have to look at this, you have to do that.’ It helped a lot. But now it’s our time to really dial in on our own and make sure that we’re both getting better individually.”

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