After the first week of what figures to be many NFL training camps for Datone Jones, the Green Bay Packers love what they’ve seen from their rookie first-round draft pick. On an almost daily basis, the defensive end from UCLA has made at least one play that left everyone watching breathless.
“Datone is very much what we thought he would be,” said defensive line coach Mike Trgovac.
“I certainly haven’t seen anything I’ve been disappointed with,” said defensive coordinator Dom Capers.
“You can see the talent,” said coach Mike McCarthy.
From his impressive size (he is listed at 6-foot-4, 285 pounds but says he weighs 294) to his lightning quickness for a man his size, Jones has had shining moments in 1-on-1 pass-rush drills and 11-on-11 competitive team drills alike. His new teammates have taken notice, with everyone – from quarterback Aaron Rodgers to offensive linemen to fellow defenders – singing his praises.
“He's got a lot of energy. We practice guys pursuing to the ball, but there's times where you're chasing the ball down field and you look, ‘Oh, there's big (No.) 95 right there,’” safety Morgan Burnett said. “He's learning quickly, and the future is bright for him. The sky’s the limit for him.”
But despite his bright future and impressive present, Jones’ coaches were tapping the brakes on some of the buzz and excitement Jones has created after four practices in pads.
“He has flashed big-play ability, and he’s a guy that’s a typical rookie other than that,” said Trgovac, a tough-but-fair position coach whose players like and respect him for his unvarnished assessments. “He’s had a lot thrown at him, he’s fighting through some things, he needs to detail his work, and he’s really trying on that. He’s a typical rookie that needs to be taught some things and taught how to practice and taught how to do this. That’s what will take his game to the next level.”
Jones, whom the Packers took with the 26th overall pick in the April NFL Draft, was at a slight advantage when he arrived at the rookie orientation camp in May because the defense he ran at UCLA was a simplified college version of the scheme Capers runs. (Bruins defensive coordinator Lou Spanos worked under Capers in Pittsburgh in the 1990s.) But while that may have helped him with the big-picture aspects of the defense, both Trgovac and Capers emphasized the importance of learning the subtleties and minute details of the defense – and those take time.
“It’s just a lot of the little details that he hasn’t had,” Capers said. “That’s going to be his challenge – really taking care of the details and learning how he fits into things.”
One thing that isn’t an issue is Jones’ physical talent. He spent four weeks after the rookie symposium in June doing mixed martial arts workouts back home in Southern California with other NFL players included and MMA fighters, including former champion Chuck Liddell.
“Hand and eye coordination, leverage, punches, your strike, just everything,” Jones said of the applications of the MMA-style workouts, which outside linebacker Clay Matthews does as well. “It helps (with) releasing and getting off blocks more aggressively, and your conditioning. I started doing it in college. It helped me out my senior year really well, so I was like I'm not going to go away from it now.”
But while Jones fits the profile for a prototypical 3-4 end, the coaches intend to limit Jones’ role in the defense, at least initially. While he’s gotten a handful of snaps with the No. 1 defense in the base 3-4 “Okie” scheme, he’s seen the most first-string work in the team’s nickel alignment, lining up next to B.J. Raji as one of the two down linemen.
“I think he has good strength for a guy his size, his athletic ability would lend itself to being able to play all three downs at some point in time. I don’t know how early that’ll be,” Capers said. “It’s always easier to pick out a package or two and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to try to feature you here, but continue to work and come along (in the other areas).’ But I think he has the tools. The strength to get in the middle of a block and play on first down, but also the athletic ability that he can win in some 1-on-1 rush situations.”
Trgovac said that while Jones is a different style of player than Chicago Bears defensive end Julius Peppers, whom Trgovac coached in Carolina from 2002 through 2008, they are similar in that the Panthers coaches wanted to keep things simple for Peppers as a rookie. It worked, as Peppers had 12 sacks in 12 games.
Trgovac also said that what made Peppers the player he’s become – with 111.5 career sacks, the 33-year-old ranks 18th all-time – was the way he focused on the details that Trgovac is stressing to Jones.
“Julius detailed his game, and every year I think he got better and better and better,” Trgovac said. “One of the things I concentrated with on Julius when he was a rookie was not giving him 50 million things to think about so he’s out there rushing the passer thinking about this, thinking about that. Then the next year we added more to his instruction.
“You wanted his natural ability to take over. That’s exactly what we’re trying to do with Datone. You try to make sure you don’t overload the guy because he is a good athlete. We haven’t even been in a game yet, so we have to see how this goes. We’ve really had only (four) practices in pads. That’s going to be the evaluation on us.
“Tone’s a good athlete. He’s got the ability to flash the big play that everybody sees. But it’s the other things that are going to make him the complete player.”
To his credit, Jones seems to know how much he doesn’t know yet. And he’s anxious to learn it.
“I think I got better every day. If I made a mistake, I made sure I didn’t make it again,” Jones said when asked to give a scouting report on himself from the first week. “There’s a lot of great guys on this defensive line, so I’ve got to earn my keep. Nothing is going to be just given
“I’ve tried to be on a more consistent pace. I made sure that I was overachieving in these practices and getting better every day. They have high hopes for me, and all I can do is work hard, make sure I know my assignments and just make sure I’m hustling and being as physical as I can every play.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.