With the cupboard stacked at LSU, linebacker Deion Jones, the key figure in the Falcons’ revamp of their linebacker corps, had to wait his turn.
The New Orleans native, whom the Falcons selected in the second round (52nd overall) of the NFL draft, spent his time on special teams until he hit the field and had a breakthrough season in 2015.
There were tough times, when he thought he’d never crack the lineup.
“It was really locking in and being patient,” Jones admitted. “When I got my time, I made the best of it.”
Last season, he started 12 games after Kwon Alexander left and was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Jones was a finalist for the Dick Butkus Award, which goes to the nation’s top linebacker, while becoming the Tigers’ leading tackler and defensive MVP.
As NFL offensive attacks have spread the field while leaning heavily on the passing game, team’s need faster linebackers who can stop the run and cover in space.
Jones is a shade under 6-foot-1 and he’s up to 230 pounds. He’s already talked to Alexander, who had a stellar All-Rookie season for the Bucs, about making the jump to the NFL.
“Just continue to play with that fire, continue to play with intensity, and also have fun out there,” Jones said of Alexander’s message. “You know, the plays will come.”
Falcons coach Dan Quinn is moving Jones to middle linebacker, where he’ll have to beat out Paul Worrilow, the team’s leading tackler over the past three seasons. There’s a clear path to the field for Jones if he can cover running backs on third-down situations. Worrilow was a liability in pass coverage last season, as opposing quarterbacks had a 104.6 passer rating throwing in his direction.
Jones ran the 40-yard dash in 4.38 seconds at LSU’s Pro Day and has the speed to keep up with running backs. Quinn has repeatedly talked about getting faster on defense this offseason.
Jones believes he can cover NFL running backs coming out of the backfield.
“Yes, I think I have the skill set to help (out on) running backs,” Jones said. “We did a lot of that with the running back pattern and a lot of man-to-man (at LSU).”
He played mostly weakside linebacker in college. The Falcons also have LaRoy Reynolds on the roster at middle linebacker.
“The linebacker can run,” a high-ranking AFC personnel executive told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “The kid from LSU can flat out run. He’s a run-and-chase player. He’s not the most instinctive guy in the world, but he can run and make plays in space.
“The problem with that, him being a run-and-chase player is that he has to have defensive linemen keep him clean, and they don’t have those kind of defensive linemen.”
The Falcons are confident that Jones has the ability to get off blocks and continue to flow to the ball. General manager Thomas Dimitroff repeatedly discussed his ability to “scrape.”
“For Deion Jones, first off, the run-and-hit factor is totally alive,” Quinn said. “He’s an all-downs linebacker for us. Match up, running backs, tight ends. Now, the three-deep (zone) that we play, the ability to close and tackle in space is critical to playing inside ’backer in this spot.”
The Falcons are fine with Jones having made only 12 SEC starts over his 51-game career.
“I really went back through all these games this year, and we also went back through (all of) the games, Thomas and I did, the year before,” Quinn said. “I think the ability of what we saw … totally jumped out on tape. It was the speed, the tackling, the physicality that he played with, and we knew we wanted to add that to our group.”
The Falcons like Jones’ hitting ability, too.
“When you’re playing at linebacker and you’re playing this much three-deep (zone) and you’re playing in space, you’d better have the ability to close and then get there with some nasty demeanor, and he certainly fits that,” Quinn said.
Jones did miss part of the Syracuse game after he was suspended for targeting against Auburn.
“I mean, the referee made a good call,” Jones said. “It was close, and you know, he had to call it. He was just doing his job.”
Jones has five sacks at LSU, but the Falcons aren’t counting on him to help the pass rush as a blitzer.
“They didn’t blitz him a lot, but he did have some (tackles for losses),” Quinn said. “He is a sideline-to-sideline player for sure, and I think that shows up in the speed and the physicality that he plays with.”
As Dimitroff and Quinn examined various videos of Jones, his striking ability and coverage skills stood out for them.
“Certainly (he) fits all the needs that we want, too, at that spot,” Quinn said.
The Falcons don’t feel that Jones’ instincts are lacking.
“That part of the game for him is on point in terms of being classically trained there (at linebacker),” Quinn said. “He sees things. For sure when he sees it, he goes and gets it.
“I think that totally showed up on the tape this year, the tackles that he had, the physicality that he played with. So he was somebody that kind of checked the boxes, so to speak, in terms of all the things that we looked for (in a linebacker).”
Jones now looks at not playing early during his career at LSU as an asset.
“I think I’m really fresh,” Jones said. “I don’t have a lot of injuries that some guys have after multiple years. I think I have a lot of miles left on me.”