GREEN BAY - Josh Jones was ready for anything as a rookie. An eager second-round pick out of North Carolina State, Jones devoured every opportunity thrown his way last summer.
Safety, inside linebacker or slot cornerback. It didn’t matter. Jones wanted on the field. Through a chorus of injuries in the secondary, that’s exactly what Jones got en route to playing 730 snaps, the third most on Green Bay’s defense.
And each one taught the 23-year-old rookie a lesson or two about life in the NFL.
“I started the year off pretty strong, but then, as the year went on, it’s like, I go from playing 12 games in college to playing 20 in the NFL. It just wore on me,” Jones said. “I wasn’t all there mentally. Now, I’ve got my routine down pat. I know what to expect and I’m going to be ready for it.”
Jones speaks honestly when looking back on his rookie year. He experienced highs – a 12-tackle, two-sack performance against Cincinnati and game-clinching overtime interception against Cleveland – and his share of lows like most rookies do during their first 16 NFL regular-season games.
This offseason has been about taking that wealth of experience and using it to bring his game to the next level in Year 2. The opportunity is there for Jones to assume an increased role on defense following the departure of veteran safety Morgan Burnett in free agency.
After frequently moving Jones around as a rookie, the Packers have made it a point this offseason to let him concentrate on the safety position, where he established himself as one of the Atlantic Coast Conference’s biggest playmakers from 2014-16.
“He has a unique set of skills and played a lot of different positions. I think that was reflected in some of his performance,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “Really this year, the ability to focus in on one or two positions, you’ll see him more comfortable and flying around and not thinking as much. I think he’s definitely on pace for that.”
Jones doesn’t blame the Packers for plugging him in at multiple spots last year. It’s a matchup game and having a 6-foot-2, 220-pound safety who runs in the low-4.4s is an intriguing chess piece for any defensive coordinator.
Jones already can feel a difference in focusing his attention on a single position. Having pass-game coordinator Joe Whitt lead the entire secondary also has helped weave the cornerbacks and safeties together on the back end of Mike Pettine’s defense.
After watching teammates such as Kenny Clark and Blake Martinez make leaps in their second NFL season, Jones wants to be the next Packers draft pick to follow suit.
“We always talk about the Year 2 jump. That’s what I want to make,” Jones said. “I want to make those strides. I wasn’t a fan of what I did last year, what I put on tape, and I’m not going to sit and try to hide from it or sugarcoat it or make up excuses.
“I just didn’t play well. We all know that. It’s all about being a better football player, which I know I’m capable of and God blessed me with the ability to do.”
Despite Burnett’s exit, there is serious competition at the safety position, with Jones, Kentrell Brice, Marwin Evans and Jermaine Whitehead all vying to start opposite All-Pro Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
A student of the game, Jones knows of countless NFL safeties who became Pro Bowlers after being thrown in the fire as rookies. He remains as eager as ever to prove what he can do and a little wiser, too, thanks to an eye-opening rookie NFL season in which he recorded 71 tackles, two sacks and a pick.
“You’ve got to take the good, you’ve got to take the bad. You learn from it all,” Jones said. “Rome wasn’t built in a day. When you come out of the womb, you don’t start walking. You take steps.