Most Important Packers: No. 15 — Datone Jones

Green Bay Packers beat writer Paul Imig will be analyzing the 25 most important players to the Packers’ success in the 2013 season. Check back each day to see the latest player on the list.

Note: This is not a list of the team’s 25 best players or a series about past success, but rather which of them means the most to how Green Bay will fare this year. Criteria such as depth at that player’s position, general expectations and overall importance of that player having a good season are all highly considered.

NO. 15 – DATONE JONES, DEFENSIVE LINE

AGE / EXPERIENCE

22 (will turn 23 before training camp opens) / Rookie

WHY HE’S NO. 15

First-round picks like Jones who are drafted at a position of need are always important, even in their first NFL season. It doesn’t always work out, as was the case in 2012 with Nick Perry and in 2011 with Derek Sherrod. If those two players had been able to make more valuable contributions as rookies, the Packers would have been a better team for it. Late-round picks get a pass early on because teams aren’t making as large of an investment in them. And, even though rookie contracts are scaled back now, first-round picks still carry the biggest responsibility.

Most of Green Bay’s defensive linemen are fairly one-dimensional. C.J. Wilson is almost exclusively a run-stopper. Mike Neal and Jerel Worthy are used primarily on passing downs. Jones, at 6-foot-4 and 285 pounds, projects to be good in both areas. Yes, it’s only a projection at this point. But, with the speed and power of Jones, there’s good reason for the Packers to believe it can be shown on the field immediately.

Jones is No. 15 on this list due to the impact he could have right away for Green Bay. Clay Matthews, who was drafted at the exact same spot (No. 26 overall) four years earlier, showed that not every player needs a full year or two in the league before becoming a major factor. Matthews is a special talent and the bar can’t be held quite that high for Jones, but it’s proof that it can happen, even from a player drafted late in the first round. If Jones is able to dominate at times, like Matthews was, the Packers will instantly become an improved defense.

EXPECTATIONS FOR 2013

Jones is the exact player Green Bay’s front office and coaching staff wanted. Not only is Jones potentially an every-down defensive lineman, but he also played in an identical defense at UCLA. Part of what attracted the Packers to him during the draft process was how familiar Jones was with the terminology and general scheme.

Many rookies have a rough transition into the NFL. Part of that often has to do with the game moving too fast for them. Young players can get caught thinking so much that they fail to play on instinct. The transition for Jones should be much smoother. The only thing that should be new for Jones by the time the season opens is the level of competition. That’s a big hurdle to clear, sure, but every rookie goes through that. Jones is way ahead of the curve because of the time he spent playing in this defense in college.

That’s why big things are expected of Jones. Unlike Perry last year, whose expectations should have been in check as a rookie while he learned a new position at outside linebacker, Jones should be more prepared for this challenge.

Green Bay will need Jones to be effective against the run and pass. If defensive coordinator Dom Capers is able to keep Jones on the field regardless of the situation, the Packers will have a greater advantage. That would also keep Capers from having to guess what’s coming next, which is what he was forced to do at times last season.

WHAT WOULD THEY DO WITHOUT HIM?

There is depth on Green Bay’s defensive line. What there isn’t, however, is a player quite like Jones. If Jones gets off to a slow start, it will be back to the 2012-style occasional guesswork for Capers. That would mean running Ryan Pickett, Mike Daniels, Wilson and the rest of the group on and off the field every couple plays. Jones can prevent that from happening again.

Worthy could miss significant time this upcoming season after tearing his ACL in Week 17. Worthy was one of the rookies last season with big expectations, but that didn’t work out as well as the Packers hoped. Having Worthy unavailable for at least a portion of the 2013 regular season is still a setback for Green Bay’s flexibility on the defensive line. This is yet another factor adding to the importance of Jones having a good rookie year.

Daniels could make a big Year 1 to 2 jump. Neal, despite the current transition being attempted at a switch to outside linebacker, could still get plenty of snaps on the defensive line. Others, like B.J. Raji, Johnny Jolly (if he makes the team), Pickett, Wilson and rookie Josh Boyd, would all play bigger roles if Jones gets injured or struggles. But the Packers are clearly going to be cautiously optimistic that they don’t have to go to Plan B too soon and that Jones is the impact rookie they need him to be.

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