Editor's Note: Dan Turner, a journalist from England, has come across the pond for the second straight training camp, to get a closer look at America's Team. Throughout camp, Dan (@dtsturner) will provide some insight on several rookies, continuing today with first-round pick Byron Jones.)
The Cowboys have been spoiled over the past couple of years with their first draft pick. Travis Frederick has started every game and was named second-team All-Pro last year, while Zack Martin started every game and was named first team All-Pro as a rookie. It would be extremely harsh of Dallas fans to expect the same from Byron Jones as a rookie, but expectations are still high for him.
If anyone can handle these expectations and remain level-headed, it's Byron Jones. It's easy to become enamoured with Jones' athleticism, but his intelligence and intangibles are at least as impressive. Speaking to him after practice, you can tell that this is a young man who was raised right. He looks you in the eye when he speaks to you, and has a quiet confidence about him.
With everything that he has achieved in his young life so far, from interning for US Representative Elizabeth Esty in Washington, to breaking an (unofficial) world record at the NFL Combine, you would think of him as someone who is hard to faze. He told me however that coming to Oxnard has been a "wow" moment for him.
"You come out to practice and there's 10,000 people here, easily, all around the field, cheering your name and screaming," Jones said.
Jones even stated that the biggest difference off the field between college and the NFL was the fans, and the "attention around, especially the Dallas Cowboys." This seems to be a common denominator throughout all the rookies who I've spoken to so far. Past training camps for these guys would have been about learning and processing. Now, everything they do is scrutinised by media and fans alike, on and off the field, both positively and negatively.
The ex-Huskie is showing improvement by the day here in Oxnard. After starting off shakily, he seemed to fall down the depth chart, below Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick, Mo Claiborne, Corey White, and even Tyler Patmon. Tuesday was easily his best day so far though, with him even seeing time against Dez Bryant in one-on-ones. In fact, he made the best play of the day, blanket covering Dez downfield on a Go route and then going up to knock the pass down.
Jones' pure cover ability is exquisite. He has shown throughout his college career and in training camp so far that he has no issue staying in phase with receivers. The two issue areas he currently has are pressing his man at the line, and over-aggressiveness at catch point. The press coverage problems probably stem from the season-ending shoulder injury he sustained in his senior year. He too often doesn't get physical enough at the line, and allows a free release. In college, his athleticism was enough to catch up with receivers, but that won't work in the NFL.
The aggressiveness at catch point of Jones is responsible for much of his big play ability, but it does mean that he concedes far too many plays also. Even rookie receivers like Deontay Greenberry and George Farmer have had success against him for this reason. If you're going to drive on the ball as a cornerback, you better get there, and Jones has missed on a few occasions out here.
Jones' greatest strength on the field has to be his versatility. He has experience at cornerback, free safety, strong safety, as well as being used in press, off-man, and zone coverage. He's a balanced player with few serious weaknesses, except the ones mentioned above. However, with so many different facets to his game, it's hard to find the right place where these traits can be exploited to full effect.
The way the Cowboys are using Jones on the field is a little unconventional. He isn't exactly a cornerback, or a safety, or a linebacker. More like an amalgamation of all of them. Jones has seen snaps at cornerback and safety, but the position that the Cowboys seem to have planned for him is as an in-the-box hybrid. Essentially, his job is simply to cover the tight end, and get uphill in run support also. This allows the Cowboys to take another linebacker off the field in nickel situations, and play with six defensive backs, while still having enough players in the box to warn against draw plays and underneath catch-and-go plays.[embeddedad0]
That might be a good spot for him. The Cowboys will face Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, Jordan Cameron, Zach Ertz, and Greg Olsen in 2015. Last year, the Cowboys conceded 109 catches (easily the most in NFL), 1052 yards (second most), and 10 touchdowns (seventh most) against tight ends. Byron Jones's combination of size, strength, speed, quickness, and technique makes him a good fit for the role. It's unorthodox, but Jones might be the solution to one of Dallas' biggest problems.
Jones will obviously want to start this season, but it isn't necessarily a disaster if he can't achieve that. Brandon Carr and Orlando Scandrick seem to be firmly entrenched as starters at cornerback, and it would probably require an injury to unseat either of them. At nickel cornerback, Mo Claiborne, Corey White, and Tyler Patmon are all making a hard run at it, so it may require a switch to safety for him to see significant time this year. Either way, if he does see significant time this year, he'll have to earn it.
There's something about Byron Jones that makes me believe that he's going to be a special player for the Dallas Cowboys in the long run. His on-the-field issues are all correctable, and he's flawless off-the-field. Maybe he'll need time to become accustomed with the NFL, but the talent is there.