I’m not going to bury the lede here: Chris Jones is one of the most impressive rookie defensive linemen I’ve ever watched.
But Seth, he only had 28 total tackles and two sacks last year.
Allow me to retort.
When you get owned twice in one play by Chris Jones. This is my new favorite gif of the year. pic.twitter.com/1kO4CLuCzV— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) December 15, 2016
I love a million things about this play, but I’ll limit it to the point I want to make before we get started: there’s no stat for destroying your blocker and forcing the runner to completely abandon the running lanes he’s supposed to look for, reducing the play’s chance of success by about 90 percent (no doubt because that’s something of a mouthful). There’s also no stat for displaying physical dominance of another grown man that’s normally reserved for play time with dads and children. (I swear, I WILL make this a recognized stat somehow).
Jones easily absorbs the quick block by the center without moving, then swims over the top of the left guard like he’s barely there. He’s in the backfield before the RB has a chance to take more than a single step after getting the ball. The back has to completely veer off to try and get to the right edge, but that’s Justin Freaking Houston’s edge and it’s not happening. He runs around like a frightened small human for a while and manages to elude Jones (which slows him down yet again) before being swarmed by the defense.
Jones was the primary factor in that run going nowhere. But you’ll never see a stat for it. No tackle, no assist, no nothing. As far as the stats sheet is concerned, Chris Jones didn’t do a thing on that play. Someone else gets all the credit.
Why do I bring all this up? To try and open the minds of those who believe they can point to tackles/sacks for a defensive lineman and say they know how well he played, that way we can talk about Chris Jones’s rookie film. Need an example against the pass? Sure, I can do that.
(sifts through roughly a million Chris Jones gifs)
Sure, this’ll do. One of plenty of examples.
Chris Jones doing the "use an offensive lineman as a weapon" thing again, this time to knock a Rivers pass (and Rivers) harmlessly aside. pic.twitter.com/h8JBktfBz4— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) July 1, 2017
Jones had a habit of using offensive linemen against both quarterbacks and running backs (we’ll talk about that shortly). Here, Jones just bull rushes the “blocker” (the quotation marks feel necessary) right into Rivers’s lap, then slams the “blocker” into Rivers as he attempts to throw. Because being hit in the side by a 300-plus pound human tends to rock you, Rivers gets knocked over hard enough to cause him to throw the ball right into the turf.
Once again, you’re not going to find a stat here. No sack, no tackle, not even a pass defensed recorded (at least on ESPN’s stats). So you’ve got a guy who made a great play that resulted in the offense losing the down, and he gets absolutely no credit for those who browse the stats sheet.
Do you understand now why I think it’s a travesty when people say “Player X only had Y tackles and Z sacks?” I hope you do. So with that in mind, let’s talk about Chris Jones.
(I’ve you’ve never read a defensive line breakdown by me, read this: basically, I track wins/losses and neutral plays, effective double teams, and pressures/hits/sacks. Keep in mind that defensive linemen lose much more often than offensive linemen given the nature of the position, and winning is significantly more rare)
First, let’s examine the numbers Jones put up in the six games I reviewed. Note that I included both Pittsburgh games to see how he did against a very good offensive line and to see if anything changed on film from early in the year to later in the year.
All right, that’s a lot of numbers. I don’t have quite enough data on defensive linemen to tell you exactly what I’m looking for in W/L percentage, but for frame of reference (though they were playing different positions), here is a link to a similar review for Dontari Poe in 2016, and here is a link to a similar review for Bennie Logan in 2016.
Since they were on the same team and Dontari Poe is widely acknowledged as a decent player who perhaps had an average year in 2016, let’s compare W/L percentages to him. Poe won on 17.9 percent of his snaps and lost on 34.6 percent of his snaps. As you can see, Jones’s numbers were markedly better than Poe’s (especially the all-important loss number. Losses kill defenses). Additionally, and interestingly, Jones had nearly as many effective double teams as Poe despite being in a position that’s schematically more difficult to double. He applied more pressure as well, despite fewer snaps than Poe.
In short, Jones outperformed Poe in 2016 (at least in the games I reviewed for each) by a fairly comfortable margin. Even if Poe wasn’t in his prime form, that’s very, very impressive for a rookie.
And impressive is as good a word as any to describe Jones. Since we’ll be saying a lot of nice things about his film, let’s start off with some spots Jones needs to improve to go from a good player to his full potential (which we’ll talk about in the positives section.
First and foremost, Jones needs to be more consistent against the run. The raw material is absolutely there, but Jones lost too much for a guy with such remarkable physical tools.
Part of it has to do with recognition. Jones himself admitted that at times he wasn’t sure of where he was supposed to be and what the offense was doing. That’s pretty common for a rookie defensive lineman. Sometimes Jones would run himself out of a play by having his head down and focusing purely on beating his opposing OL. By doing so, he would miss the runner going right by him.
A second problem Jones had was getting washed out by double teams. Now, this wasn’t constant, but it happened more frequently than I’d like to see, particularly for a guy with such freakish strength and long arms to engage blockers. I believe the problem here lies in Jones’s biggest obvious weakness as a player: pad level. This next snap is a pass rushing snap, but it demonstrates what I’m talking about.
This is where Chris Jones can improve. Gets great initial push, but pad level is so high RG can reset and get underneath pads, slowing rush. pic.twitter.com/49sDfVqwr9— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) July 13, 2017
Jones is a naturally tall player at 6’6. Because of that, he’s going to have to pay special attention to his technique in order to get low and explode up into the pads of an opposing offensive lineman. It’s not going to just come naturally to him like it does for guys like Rakeem Nunez-Roches and Bennie Logan (both listed at 6’2).
The problem for Jones is that he very, very rarely plays low. Now, what’s fascinating about him is how often he wins anyways (seriously, it’s remarkable, considering how crucial pad level is). But just because you’re able to play well despite a major flaw doesn’t mean that it’s not holding you back from being more. If Jones works on his pad level he’ll be much more able to stand against double teams as a run blocker and will be that much tougher to block when rushing the passer.
Pad level and recognition are absolutely the two biggest things holding Jones back as a run defender, though it’s important to keep in mind that he’s still pretty stout in that area. A final weakness of Jones is that he doesn’t show variety consistently enough as a pass rusher. While Jones does have a good number of moves (he’s shown a bull rush, rip, swim, push-pull, and even a few spin moves), he often limited himself by sticking exclusively with his (albeit inhuman and often effective) bull rush. I’d like to see Jones use the push-pull more often as a counter, and I’m REALLY interested to see if he keeps honing his spin.
All right, let’s talk about strengths. We’ll start with run defense again.
Did not take long to get to our first "I shall move you tiny human" snap. Chris Jones's strength is inhuman. pic.twitter.com/XXTynpyEHC— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) July 13, 2017
I cannot overstate this: Chris Jones is one of the strongest football players I’ve ever watched on either side of the ball. His ability to consistently just SHOVE offensive linemen into the backfield is rare. VERY rare. He’s such a brute that he often affects run plays in this way: simply removing space for the running back to operate by shoving the offensive lineman into his way.
Because of Jones’s incredible strength, it’s very difficult for teams to run right at him unless they assign him multiple blockers. If you don’t you’re taking a risk that he’ll simply blow the lineman backwards and significantly lower the chance of success for the play.
And strength isn’t the only thing Jones brings to the table as a run defender.
Jones isn't just freakishly strong. He's got a quick first step and is tough to reach on. pic.twitter.com/Uj1RFJSnOH— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) July 14, 2017
For a defender whose game often revolves around strength, Jones has very surprising quickness and overall athleticism. He’s nimble enough to dance around blocks and his first step is a lot faster than he gets credit for.
Because of that first step, Jones is often a real problem for reach blocks, and several times last year he just burst through the line Aaron Donald style and vaporized the running back. Because of this ability, lines have to be careful how they decide to try and block Jones. With his speed/strength combination, reach blocks by individual offensive linemen are often wildly ineffective at getting Jones away from the runner. And so they have to either double him or throw those types of plays out entirely.
Any time you’re good enough as a rookie to make offenses throw out entire sections of the playbook, that’s rare. Chris Jones was that kind of rare as a run defender, despite some issues with consistency. He was also very strong at the point of attack against individual blockers, which is hardly surprising. His ridiculously long arms and the power he has in his upper body allow him to bench-press blockers off him and close potential gaps a runner would want to exploit.
There really should be a "stood up OL, closed 2 gaps and forced RB to try and get to the edge" stat. A bit of a mouthful, though. pic.twitter.com/G7TVDgreXI— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) July 14, 2017
As you can see above, Jones is just too strong to block one-on-one in a lot of situations. The end result is often him making some kind of play on the ball, whether it results in him or someone else getting to the runner before they can do much damage. It is not an exaggeration to say that in the games I watched at least a dozen runs were affected by Jones in a huge way where he didn’t get the tackle (and hence doesn’t get any credit).
In short, Jones established himself as a solid, though inconsistent run defender as a rookie. Which by itself would be exciting (considering how tough it is to do so in your first year in the NFL), but few people even noticed because of what he did as a pass rusher.
Chris Jones struggled (for him) a lot of the day against CAR, but this sack was spectacular. Nice swim over Turner. pic.twitter.com/3dRTUysNwW— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) July 14, 2017
Although Jones only had a few sacks in 2016, as we established to start off this article, that does not tell the entire story when it comes to a pass rusher. Jones was able to consistently impact games by providing pressure at a high rate, despite being a first year player.
Once again, Jones’s strength was the primary vehicle he used in order to make an impact. His bull rush is absolutely terrifying, and often resulted in Jones driving offensive linemen right into the lap of the quarterback, forcing them off their spot and often affecting the timing of plays.
Pressure changes games. 3rd down, Jones just escorts the RT into Carr's lap. Rushes throw off-balance on the move, goes wide. pic.twitter.com/YIPqHIMhUG— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) July 14, 2017
You could turn on any Chiefs game from 2016, absolutely any game, and find a few snaps where Jones drove back an offensive lineman in similar fashion. It was as reliable as watching Tyreek Hill sprint by defenders down the stretch. I’ve rarely seen a defensive lineman who was so capable of overpowering the opposition on a snap-by-snap basis.
Of course, the threat of the bull rush combined with Jones’s athleticism and hand-fighting ability (he’s got very active hands for a rookie rusher) led to other chances for Jones to get pressure on quarterbacks. As you can see from the GIF of Jones’s sack on Cam Newton, Jones has developed an absolutely devastating swim move. Because the threat of his bull rush is so significant, he’s able to catch linemen leaning and uses that to blow right past them. The same is true for Jones’s push-pull move, which is one of the more effective I’ve seen and a move I hope he goes to more often.
Jones had a consistent, noticeable impact on opposing quarterbacks in 2016, even if it didn’t always show up in the stats sheet.
Drives RG back so fast C can't adequately help, stays with it while QB moves right, gets there too fast for RG to keep up and chucks QB. pic.twitter.com/4wU7E4nCie— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) July 14, 2017
The above GIF really encapsulates the problem Jones presents with an offensive lineman. He’s ridiculously strong (blows the RG backward at the snap), but is also very athletic (outruns the RG to Mariota when he rolls right, proves too agile for Mariota to shake and tosses him to the ground). The end result? Jones was one of the most productive interior rushers in the NFL, despite the relatively low sack count.
Unfortunately, because he didn’t collect the sacks a player who gets his kind of pressure usually gets, Jones still flies a bit under the radar. Again, there’s no moved the QB off his spot and forced an off-balance throw that landed inaccurately stat in the NFL. There’s no forced the quarterback who was about to throw to pull the ball down and run into another pass rusher stat. And so those who use sacks as an accurate measurement of a pass rusher minimize Jones’s impact, despite the fact that quarterbacks basically turn from wildly competent to Brock Osweiler when you compare their QB rating from a clean pocket to when they are under pressure.
One way you can see whether or not a defensive player is making a genuine impact is how offenses prepare for them (or whether or not they do so at all). If you start to see extra blockers consistently sent in the direction of a defensive lineman, that means he’s a guy teams identified as a threat. And that’s exactly what happened to Jones down the stretch last year.
I'm already seeing Jones drawing extra attention midway through '16. Teams saw he was a problem. Poe took advantage of one-on-one here pic.twitter.com/nlcUSgXTWj— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) July 14, 2017
Now part of that is just schematic: the center is always going to double SOMEONE from that formation. But note that he essentially ignores Poe to start off focusing on Jones. That happened more and more as the year wore on and offenses began to identify Jones as a guy who would wreck passing downs if he went unchecked.
What was fun about this, at least in the limited time Justin Houston was healthy, was watching offenses try and figure out what to do when they were on the same side of the defense.
Chiefs did this multiple times vs. DEN: put Jones on outside shoulder of RG, making it almost impossible to help RT w/ Houston. Love it. pic.twitter.com/HJnx6faPbJ— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) July 14, 2017
Everyone knows that Houston’s return to full health will play a major factor in the Chiefs’ defense this next year, but the multiplier effect it should have on Jones (and vice versa) has the potential to be so high that it’s almost impossible to overrate. Since neither player is a guy who can be handled consistently one-on-one, you’re essentially forced as a team to either take a huge risk by leaving one of them alone or commit 4 players to blocking (or at least helping block, in the case of a chipping TE or RB) 2 defenders. That’s a losing proposition.
In the loss to the Steelers in the playoffs, Pittsburgh repeatedly sent multiple blockers at both Jones and Houston, essentially daring the rest of the Chiefs’ pass rush to beat them. Dee Ford and Dontari Poe were all too often unable to rise to that challenge. Most offensive lines don’t have the overall talent to get away with such things, and those who might should have a more difficult time containing a healthy Ford (you’ll never convince me his hamstring wasn’t bothering him down the stretch) and Bennie Logan.
However, all of that is an unknown. What I do know is that Chris Jones’s film is every bit as impressive as one would expect. He was one of the best rookie defensive linemen I’ve ever seen on tape (and better than many veteran defensive linemen. Because of his completely unique physical gifts, he is in the same boat as Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce in that there’s almost no ceiling on how good he can be. It will all depend on his desire to be more than a “good” player, because he’s capable of doing so just coasting on physical gifts alone.
Pad level and play recognition will be the two things I’m looking for Jones to develop in his second season. If he brings those to even an average level, I genuinely shudder to think of what he could be. But it is not an exaggeration to say it could be in the absolute top tier of defensive players in the NFL. He’s that talented. So here’s hoping he attacked improving on those things the way he attacked linemen as a rookie.