When the Atlanta Falcons selected Deion Jones with the 52nd-overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft they clearly knew what they were getting even if plenty of media members and fans did not.
Many panned the selection at the time, claiming Jones had special athletic ability but had never translated it to the football field at a level that warranted a second-round pick. Here is what Sports Illustrated's Doug Farrar had to say of Jones following the draft:
"Jones is a speed linebacker with some safety-level assets—not a bad player, but perhaps another reach."
Now, entering his fourth NFL season, Jones has proven to be anything but a reach. In many ways he's become the new prototypical linebacker in a league where offenses are rapidly evolving to exploit matchups and attack space.
Upon his arrival in Atlanta many assumed Jones would begin working at weakside linebacker due to his size limitations, but the Falcons had no qualms putting him at the heart of their defense and asking him to become a key leader for the unit. He's responded right from the start, becoming instrumental in the Falcons' Cover-3 scheme.
Defensively, Atlanta doesn't mind giving up short passes to the middle of the field. In fact, they invite quarterbacks to make those quick dump-off throws about 4 yards past the line of scrimmage. The key for the Falcons is keeping a 4-yard throw and 4-yard gain, and that's where Jones is absolutely essential.
Perhaps no linebacker in the NFL is better at closing space than Jones. He is so sudden in his movements once a ball is thrown that he often gets to the receiver at the same time as the ball, allowing him to break up the pass or allow no extra yards after the catch.
According to Pro Football Focus, Jones was third among all NFL linebackers with 22 coverage stops in 2017 – the last season he played all 16 games – and he led all linebackers with nine combined pass breakups and interceptions. PFF also notes that his 12.2 forced incompletion percentage since 2017 is tops among qualifying linebackers.
Even casual NFL observers likely understand the concept of base and nickel packages. The notion when switching to a nickel look is replacing a slower, bigger linebacker who may be an asset against the run but a liability in coverage with a smaller, faster cornerback. Teams are always going to employ nickel looks, more so now than ever, but the beauty of having players like Jones and even fellow linebacker De'Vondre Campbell is that they are true three-down defenders who don't need to come off the field.
Fans saw first-hand how important Jones is to the overall success of Atlanta's defense in 2018 when a foot injury forced him to miss 10 games. With Jones on the field last season, the Falcons allowed an average of 22.3 points per game and allowed more than 30 points twice. Without Jones, Atlanta allowed 28.9 points per game and surrendered at least 30 points four times.
His impact on Atlanta's pass coverage was even more stark. Without Jones on the field in 2018, opponents averaged 6.59 yards per pass play, compared to just 4.76 yards per pass with Jones at the heart of the Falcons defense.
But Jones' rise as a star in the NFL is about more than just raw stats. He's come through in some of the biggest moments and asserted himself in game-changing ways. First among them, his game-winning interception of Drew Brees in the end zone on "Thursday Night Football" in 2017 that preserved a 20-17 victory.
Jones has eight interceptions since entering the league in 2016, which ties him with Alec Ogletree – who has played seven more games in that time – for the most among NFL linebackers.
The Falcons were ahead of the curve when they selected Jones in the second round of the 2016 draft, prizing speed and coverage skills over traditional linebacker attributes such as size and strength. With players such as Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey becoming the new normal at the running back position, Jones' importance to the Falcons should only continue to grow.
That he's made such an impact in just two-and-a-half seasons of play is a testament to Jones' growth as a player and the work he's put into understanding opposing offenses. Only 24 years old, Jones' prime is still ahead of him, and he figures to be an indispensable part of Atlanta's defense for years to come.
We're hoping for plenty of finger wagging moments in 2019 from LB Deion Jones.