FRISCO, Texas - In some respects, it could seem like just yesterday that the Cowboys drafted Byron Jones in the 2015 NFL Draft. The first-round pick out of UConn joined a secondary full of veterans like Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick, Barry Church, J.J. Wilcox, and experienced players like Morris Claiborne and Jeff Heath.
But all of a sudden Jones is entering his third season and the Cowboys are treating him like anything but a young, new player.
"Like all things in life, when you're having a good time it goes by fast," Jones said.
Time may go by fast, but experience always tends to take root, and Jones has plenty of experience in his short amount of time in the league, having started 27 of his 32 career games played.
"It's nuts," Jones said, reflecting back. "I remember when I came in I was looking at a guy who was in his third year, thinking, 'Wow, he's played a lot of football.' Within an instant I'm that guy."
Not only is Jones "that guy," but after an eventful offseason there will be far less of those types of guys in the Cowboys' secondary this upcoming seasons. Claiborne, Carr, Church, and Wilcox all took their veteran leadership to different locker rooms. Jones knows this means a new weight falls on his shoulders.
"For me, it's an opportunity to step up," Jones said. "You've got older guys that are gone. What am I going to do to respond? For me, it's stepping up and leading the young guys and steering them in the right direction so we can win some games."
Jones has been a reliable safety since he entered the league. But noticeable playmaking had eluded him for most of his first two seasons, having only recorded one career interception. There's nothing wrong with having a risk-averse safety, but Jones says his goal is to have a bigger impact with his hands.
"Just making those big plays," Jones said when asked where he wants to improve. "Finding a way. I'm doing a decent job tackling, doing a good job covering, but making those big plays, getting those interceptions, getting the ball out someway, somehow."
Plenty of eyes will be on the rookies the Cowboys added to their secondary, including safety Xavier Woods, but for much of Mini-Camp, the first-team defense consisted of Jones at safety alongside a player he has grown with since entering the league in Jeff Heath. Heath made numerous contributions to the defense last year and Jones made a strong case for what the two can accomplish together.
"He was coming in in critical situations and making plays [last year]," Jones said. "That's what Jeff Heath's main thing is. Even on special teams. He is 'personal protection' on punt. That's a big job. If there's one guy we can trust with that it's Jeff Heath. So having him there with me, it's awesome."
But even if he's playing alongside Heath, Jones knows that part of his newfound veteran status is a responsibility to mentor the many young players in the secondary.
"Just being more vocal," Jones said of his leadership style. "Just trying to help the young guys in terms of what they're doing on certain plays. And leading by example as well. I'm a guy who's not going to talk a lot, who's not going to 'hoorah' and stuff like that. But follow me and I'll show you the way."