After a very productive redshirt sophomore season, Michigan State linebacker Greg Jones briefly flirted with going pro. Instead, Jones opted to return to East Lansing, where he managed to post some amazing defensive numbers.
Last fall, Jones notched 154 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, and 9 sacks. Those numbers reflect how tremendous Jones has been for the Spartans. It was no surprise when the Michigan State middle linebacker earned consensus first-team All-American honors.
However, there’s good reason to question whether Jones will make it into the first round of next year’s draft.
The fiery leader of the Spartans’ defense, Jones possesses excellent instincts and an ever-churning motor. When he’s free to roam unobstructed by blockers, Jones does a nice job of flowing to the ball and uses his good straight-line acceleration to close. His great motor and good speed also make him a very good special teams player, as he showed by coming out of nowhere to stop a punt return seemingly headed for six in the ‘08 Capital Bowl.
While a solid run defender, Jones’ only average size and upper body strength leave him with some limitations. Jones is more of a drag-down tackler; he’ll give up an extra yard or two when he doesn’t explode into a tackle and will have trouble holding on when he tackles too high.
More disconcertingly, Jones only possesses marginal ability to take on and defeat blockers. When a lineman gets up to the second level, Jones’ excellent instincts are neutralized as he’s driven backwards. In the Notre Dame game, Jones repeatedly was put on the turf; by the second half, he seemed more interested in winning individual battles than tracking down the ball-carrier.
Because of his struggles shedding blocks, Jones likely will have to kick out to weakside linebacker at the next level. He’s expected to play some 3-4 inside backer this season, but he doesn’t project well to playing that position in the NFL.
Though Jones struggles to take on blockers, he’s very good at blitzing past them. He’s great at shooting the A gap, using his quickness to blow past interior linemen. Jones also can dip his shoulder while rushing off the edge, as well as efficiently spin off of blocks on his way to the QB. His 9.5 sacks in ‘09 are a testament to the improvement he showed as a blitzer last fall.
One would expect Jones to be as disruptive in coverage as he is as a blitzer. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. In his three years at Michigan State, Jones has yet to record a single interception. He appears to do a good job reading the quarterbacks’ eyes, but he doesn’t plant and drive to the ball with much explosiveness. In addition, he’ll occasionally lose his footing while trying to change directions. There’s some stiffness to his game, which could turn off teams that want their smaller linebackers to possess excellent coverage skills and ideal fluidity.
Despite his lack of overly impressive physical tools, Jones is a very good overall player who’s capable of improving an NFL defense. At times, Jones seemingly shows the capacity to play beyond his own limitations: in the Iowa game, he twice stuffed Adam Robinson near the goal line; in the Michigan game, he did a surprisingly good a job of shedding blocks.
So while Jones may not possess the qualities teams covet in a 1st round pick, he should prove to be a valuable contributor for whatever 4-3 team ends up taking a chance on him.