What happened to Nazair Jones? After an impressive rookie 2017 season in a far more crowded defensive line rotation, the third-round-pick all-but-vanished in 2018. His second NFL campaign was bizarre. A move to the 5-technique, defensive end role will help.
2017 started with a terrific week 1 debut, where Jones recorded a pick six of Aaron Rodgers (nullified to an interception after Cliff Avril was adjudged to have blocked in the back on the return) Though his maiden year of professional football was cut short with a high ankle sprain sustained in Week 12, Jones’ ability as a plug-and-play 3-technique suggested great value for 2018. 2 sacks and 4 quarterback hits in a rotation role was reason for excitement.
Finding out what transpired in Jones’ second year isn’t easy. The 11 games of action he got in 2017 reduced to 9. His snap count plummeted from 2017’s 284 snaps to a measly 132 in 2018. Rush production worsened
The Seattle Times’ Bob Condotta interviewed Jones in a delirious, post-Carolina lockeroom. Jones’ comments suggested he didn’t know the reason for his lack of playing time. “I honestly don’t know,’’ Jones reflected. “I’m just, whenever they tell me to suit up and go, I’m going. So I’m just trying to be more consistent in my ability so that (playing) can be more consistent for the rest of the season.’
That Week 12 W over the Panthers was a reminder that Jones still existed; he wasn’t just a name on the healthy inactive list.
The answer to a decrease in 2018 playing time, despite supposedly being healthy, is clearly multi-faceted. Part of it may lie in 2017 comments from Jones. “I have to get better at pass-rushing,” Jones told reporters in the 2017 offseason.
There is stuff behind the scenes that may have transpired that we are not privy to. But it’s reasonable to envision Jones focusing too much on pass-rush and his ability as a run defender suffering. His growth as a run defender may have been stunted in 2017 too, given that he was mainly part of the rush rotation.
The 2017 preseason also had Jones speak of the challenges of being a tall interior defensive lineman. “It’s really a downside, man, when you get these guards and it’s time to play the run, you’ve got to keep your pads low,” he acknowledged. “So being 6ft 5 with long legs, it’s hard to do. I have to be extra mindful of that.”
The Carolina game, the mini re-emergence of Jones, was a microcosm of his current skillset. He played 4i (inside shoulder of the tackle) in Seattle’s bear (stick) front. Jones’ natural instinct is to penetrate as a defensive tackle. That’s absolutely fine as an aggressive 3-technique, but in the “nickel is base” NFL world, the Seahawks have asked their defensive tackles to line up in “heavy” alignments. (Seattle calls this Tank, Tuff etc.)
Essentially, the 3-technique aligns slightly more head up on the guard—rather than on the outside shoulder. Excellent gap-control is the emphasis, in order to give Bobby Wagner and other linebackers the chance to be kept clean and flow to the run. The 4i, Bear role also requires this.
This disagrees with Jones’ playing style. “He’s still been a young guy coming on in terms of his consistency that we are working with,’’ Carroll revealed. Indeed, all of the plays Jones made against the Panthers were through penetrating into the backfield. Listen to him describe, to Condotta again, his highlight play:
“On the goal line they run to where their extra offensive tackle is, so it was just knowing that the play would be coming my way,’’ Jones described. “I just decided to shoot it and try to get in the backfield and if I can just get him to stop his feet, I know Bobby (Wagner) is coming downhill and I know all the linemen are coming. So if I can get him to stop his feet, it’s perfect. But I got back there and made the play, so it was perfect.’’
The Seahawks clearly aren’t happy with Jones’ play as a run defender. Often looking to penetrate can overrun plays. With Jarran Reed having a breakout 2018, there was less of a need for sub-package interior rush and Jones fell further down the depth chart with the impressive play of Quinton Jefferson—particularly versus the run.
Jefferson, original round tendered for 2019, figures to be Jones’ direct competition for playing time this season. The move to 5T suits Jones better as it enables him to penetrate in one direction more. Stunts like “Pirate” and “Fist” slant the defensive ends playside and rely on hand length and quick slipperiness—stuff Jones possesses.
Seattle runs Pirate, initially from the Tampa 2 familyhttps://t.co/8Zuqs9WFAc— Matty F. Brown (@mattyfbrown) July 4, 2019
Seattle also has various checks to fronts to stunt numbers play-side and keep their backers clean. Will to turnback, Mike to run through underneath the block for tackle for loss. pic.twitter.com/eT5aXi34w6
Here’s what I wrote on the role earlier this offseason:
“In simple terms [5-tech] describes a defensive line alignment, where the DL aligns over the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle. But in Seattle’s scheme, the “5-tech” is more of a role on the defensive line. The Seahawks typically have a bigger end play 5T, and then a smaller, faster end play LEO (a wider rusher).
The knowledgeable @cmikesspinmove wrote an excellent piece describing the 5T role: “it asks one player to be able to play nearly all elements of the defensive end position in modern football — from techniques 3 through 9,” Mr Spinmove surmised.
For Seattle, there seems to be have been a certain infatuation with the role—even if they traded one of the best to do it in Michael Bennett. (Culture, a subject for another day or maybe never) “It’s a hard spot to find, the Calais Campbell’s of this world are hard to find,” imparted John Schneider.”
“We’re excited about that,” Carroll said of the position switch. “We did that in the middle of the year to see him contribute out there.” The 5T role is loaded, with Seattle seemingly going for even more “big end” types and less “LEO” rushers. Ezekiel Ansah, Rasheem Green, L.J. Collier, Branden Jackson and Jefferson can all perform there.
The pass rush ability of Jones is what most intrigues Carroll: “He’s active and he’s long and got the good reach and stuff that gives him a chance to make some special plays – gets his hands up real well and all that. It’s a guy we look forward to seeing him get around the ball.”
Jones must improve his ability against the run though. Getting into the rotation earlier is important. But the pass-rush packages look cramped. Collier and Reed can kick inside to 3-technique, Shaquem Griffin will be sent off the EDGE this year and Jacob Martin’s speed is going to be unleashed on passing downs. Then there’s Reed—who, betting on himself, will be nearing a constant presence on passing downs.
It’s harped in evaluation circles that an NFL player deserves three years in the league before they can be properly judged. Jones is still young at 24-years-old and, in truth, the switch to 5T isn’t monumental given he will still get some rush reps inside. Branden Jackson was beating him out for snaps last year and receiving significant playing time. That cannot happen again. Given Jones had to relearn how to walk as a teenager, he’s overcome far tougher challenges.