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Hidden Gems: Linebacker Cam Jones brings the ‘thump’ to Chiefs’ run defense

When he’s meeting the running back in the gap, the undrafted defender brings everything with him.

NCAA Football: Cincinnati at Indiana Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

No position group on the Kansas City Chiefs’ roster feels as stocked for 2023 as linebacker. In consecutive years, the team has drafted Willie Gay Jr., Nick Bolton and Leo Chenal — and then, in this offseason, added former Los Angeles Chargers linebacker Drue Tranquill.

While this makes it more difficult for another linebacker to earn a spot on the team’s 53-man roster, it’s not impossible. Last year, the team used five linebackers, including Darius Harris and Elijah Lee, on game days. Neither is returning this season.

For 2023, two of Kansas City’s undrafted free agent signings are intriguing linebacker prospects: Cam Jones from Indiana and Isaiah Moore from North Carolina State.

I looked at Moore last week; now let’s take a look at how Jones could fit with the Chiefs:

Playing style

Jones started as a traditional off-ball linebacker — but by the end of his five-year collegiate career, he had stepped into a role as a MIKE linebacker, earning honorable mention All-Big 10 honors in two of his last three seasons. He was also a three-time team captain — one of only three Indiana players to ever do so.

He frequently played behind a 3-4 front, which features a head-up nose tackle and two defensive ends over the offensive tackles. That scheme requires linebackers to read the flow of the play in order to adjust their gap responsibilities. That’s different from a typical Kansas City front: an even-man formation where each player has a specific gap to defend on each snap.

Run defense

At the NFL Combine, Jones was one of the lightest linebackers in attendance, checking in at 6 feet 1 and 226 pounds. Among historic linebacker prospects, that weight is only in the seventh percentile.

And that makes it all the more impressive when you see Jones lay the wood as a run defender.

As we see in these plays, Jones brings all of his 226 pounds to every meeting with a ball carrier, exploding from his stance and squaring up for the hit. When the run is coming between the tackles, he is very good at staying parallel to the line of scrimmage and tackling with his entire body — rather than arm-tackling or trying to grab a ball carrier from the side.

This violence at the point of attack is paired with patient, quick play processing. Jones wastes no movement, waiting to identify each play before making a move.

As it would for any player, this looks great when there are no blockers obstructing his path. But in pursuit, Jones won’t blow through offensive linemen or other blockers; second-level blockers tend to push him around.

Playing in space

With his smaller frame, Jones displays above-average change-of-direction skills and acceleration; his 4.69-second 40-yard dash at the Combine might have been because of the foot injury he suffered last October.

When you see him pursue running backs or tight ends out of the backfield, he has plenty of speed to keep up with them. His anticipation (and aggressive hitting) makes it a bad idea for offenses to attempt swing passes (or even quick screens) to his side of the field.

That said, Jones can be a little loose in space; he can break down at the point of the tackle, rather than make a form hit like he typically does between the tackles. As we see in the second play here, his head-hunting mentality can lead to sloppy reps.

But as athletic as he is, Jones didn’t rack up a lot of coverage statistics with the Hoosiers, nabbing only two interceptions — neither of them in the last three seasons.

Still, we see good coverage recognition on these two plays. In the first, he recognizes (and covers) a crosser in front of him — and then goes vertical with the slot receiver, blanketing him through the incomplete pass.

The bottom line

Jones will be competing for a fringe roster spot — very likely against fellow undrafted free agent Moore. The two rookies have similar traits. Moore may be a more instinctual playmaker, but Jones’ quick processing and run-stuffing prowess could make him a steadier player.

Jones’ pre-draft process didn’t go as well as he would have liked, which that may have led to him going undrafted. But his college experience should give him a strong foundation that could help him make the team.

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