TEMPE, Ariz. — Chandler Jones toed the road of scrimmage, standing like the sting rusher he’s develop into with the Arizona Cardinals, bent on the waist as he readied for the Jacksonville Jaguars to snap the ball Sunday afternoon. At the final second, he put his hand on the bottom, shifting into a 3-level stance, channeling the years he spent as a defensive finish in New England.
For his first few steps after the ball was snapped, Jones had a transparent path to the Jaguars’ backfield. The left aspect of Jacksonville’s offensive line dove straight forward. Right guard A.J. Cann pulled to his left with the only intention of blocking Jones. However, earlier than Cann might set his ft, Jones dipped his left shoulder, gave an NBA-high quality head pretend and stepped round Cann, who couldn’t get two arms on Jones earlier than the Arizona Cardinals’ prized 27-year-previous move-rusher dropped operating again Leonard Fournette for a three-yard loss within the Jags’ backfield. Had quarterback Blake Bortles not handed the ball off, or had a play-motion or a straight dropback been referred to as, Jones probably would’ve added to his sack complete of 12, which was main the league till Thursday night time.
In a matter of seconds, Jones wrapped his 2017 season into one play: He’s slimmer, trimmer, extra agile and faster than he was a yr in the past, which has made him extra disruptive.
“He had a good year last year, and I think he’s gotten better this year,” outdoors linebackers coach Bob Sanders stated. “He’s still got upside to continue to grow.”
Eleven video games into the Cardinals’ season, Jones has established himself as a robust candidate for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. That’s not simply the opinion of some speaking head on TV or of followers within the nosebleeds. That comes straight from the person who designs the performs Jones runs.
“He’s playing at not a Pro Bowl level, not just an All-Pro level, he’s playing at a Defensive Player of the Year level,” Cardinals defensive coordinator James Bettcher stated. “I’ve seen this type of play from a participant a pair years again, when [Cardinals safety] Ty [Mathieu] was enjoying and having a lights-out season like this, and Chandler’s having a yr like that.”
Jones, who has an NFL-greatest 20 tackles for loss, has heard the chatter about Defensive Player of the Year too, however he’s tried to “ignore the noise, put the team first and manage my expectations.” Personal ones, at the very least. On a small whiteboard on the fitting aspect of his locker, Jones has written the phrase “Championship.” It’s the very first thing he seems to be at when he will get to work within the morning. If he can’t be in Minneapolis in February to play in Super Bowl LII, he could be there the night time earlier than the sport to hear his identify get referred to as at NFL Honors. That, he stated, can be a “huge honor.”
It can be the product of Jones committing himself to enjoying this season, lighter and in higher form than final yr.
When Jones was traded from the New England Patriots in March 2016, the Cardinals’ power and conditioning coaches requested Jones about his enjoying weight. Jones lied and gave them his present weight on the time: 280 kilos. He acquired down to between 270 and 275 kilos and performed a lot of the season at 275.
This yr, Jones determined to lose much more weight.
He put himself by way of a training camp earlier than the Cardinals’ training camp started. Jones confirmed up for the primary day of camp round 265 kilos — a bit lighter than he had needed. But by the point camp was over, he was down to the 255-260 vary, which is the vary he’s stayed at all through the season.
“I felt like I was a little sluggish,” Jones stated of 2016. “I think a lot of times when I was dealing with injuries with that weight, it was kind of more, especially the weight-bearing injuries. You’re always going to have bumps and bruises toward the end of the season. Like right now, I wouldn’t say I’m 100 percent, but since I’m lighter, it doesn’t hurt as much.
“And just as far as overall football, just being more agile. It definitely helps a lot.”
It’s additionally helped Jones’ conditioning.
He’s gone from enjoying 86.eight % of Arizona’s defensive snaps final season to 97.eight % of them this yr and is on tempo for the second 1,000-snap season of his six-yr profession. While Jones stated he might’ve performed extra snaps in 2016, being lighter has made the extra workload simpler, he added. But the place Jones sees his weight loss paying off most is within the fourth quarter of video games.
“I feel like in the fourth quarter, I’ve been a factor a lot,” he stated. “I’m not trying to toot my own horn, but last year, if you look at the fourth quarter, I wouldn’t say be invisible or disappear, but I wouldn’t be as effective or be a playmaker in the fourth quarter.
“Now, I feel like my cardio and all that plays a factor. And you look across the line, and you see the tackle, and he’s huffing and puffing, and he’s leaning back, and I’m sitting here kind of bouncing around, like, ‘Hey, let’s go.’ I feel like that credits to it, so playing at a lighter weight does help.”
Fellow outdoors linebacker Kareem Martin believes Jones’ weight loss has made “a world of difference.”
“He was always explosive, but now he’s just that much more explosive,” Martin stated. “And that much faster.”
Sanders, Jones’ place coach, has seen a lighter Jones achieve confidence this season. Jones is aware of he can nonetheless be as efficient — or simpler — as he was when heavier. That means he can nonetheless set the sting as a lighter participant and rush from the surface. Bettcher hasn’t hesitated to transfer Jones everywhere in the area — together with matching him up towards particular offensive linemen, Bettcher stated.
Along with the added confidence, Jones has additionally proven a sharper focus this yr, Martin stated.
“He’s always been a focused guy, but it seems like he has an extra level of focus this year and the attention to detail,” Martin stated. “Coach Bob, he gets on him about that. That’s something [Jones has] taken on grasp of, and you saw it most recently last Friday.”
Every week, Sanders stated, Jones takes a step nearer to being an entire participant. But Sanders has a saying: Stay inexperienced, as a result of when you get ripe, the subsequent factor is you begin to rot.
Sanders makes positive to “split hairs” with Jones. Come off blocks higher, Sanders tells him. Finish blocked performs. Finish sacks faster. Chase gamers down. Get out of the stacks on screens. Set the sting quicker. Those, Sanders stated, are all issues that assist make an entire participant. Jones nonetheless has lapses in these areas. Last week towards the Jaguars, Jones had two sacks. Sanders believed Jones ought to’ve had three.
But Jones doesn’t get annoyed.
“He’s very coachable,” Sanders added.
Sanders didn’t hesitate calling Jones the most effective gamers within the league. In Jones, his coaches see greatness.
Sanders sees the work ethic of Junior Seau and Zach Thomas. Bettcher sees the closing velocity of John Abraham, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.
And they see much more from Jones.
Sometimes throughout conferences, as Sanders will get into the small print of what Jones did incorrect or might enhance upon, Jones may inform his coach that he did “pretty good” in these conditions.
Sanders gained’t have any of it, not when Jones is having a season worthy of the Defensive Player of the Year.
“Pretty good isn’t good enough,” Sanders stated. “It’s going to be elite. That’s what we’re trying to get at. Excellent’s not good enough. We’re trying to get to the elite level. Getting to that level, I don’t know if you ever reach it.
“If you think you did, that’s when I think you start to decline as a player. And that’s where Chandler is. He wants to be elite, and he continues to work every day. I don’t think he thinks he can reach that goal, so that makes him stay green and keep going.”