GREEN BAY, Wis. — As Datone Jones opened his Green Bay Packers’ defensive playbook for the first time this past weekend, everything looked very familiar. While the rest of the team’s rookie class was starting from scratch and learning a new system, Jones was already several steps ahead.
“We ran pretty much the same defense, Dom Capers’ defense, at UCLA,” Jones said. “The terminology is a little different, but I’m picking it up pretty fast.”
Jones’ defensive coordinator during his final college season was Lou Spanos, who spent 15 seasons working as a defensive coach with the Pittsburgh Steelers beginning in 1995. Capers, Green Bay’s defensive coordinator since 2009, ran Pittsburgh’s defense from 1992-94, just prior to Spanos arriving. The two of them have subscribed to the same defensive philosophy ever since.
This was a significant selling point for the Packers when they decided to make Jones their first-round pick in this year’s draft. Jones, an athletic 6-foot-4, 285-pound defensive lineman, had the measurables and college production to project as a good NFL player regardless of which team he landed on. But Green Bay didn’t have to risk the possibility that Jones’ abilities wouldn’t translate well into its defensive system. All of the tape on Jones from his senior year was of him performing in a system nearly identical to that which Capers runs with the Packers.
“Datone hit the lottery in a number of different ways,” coach Mike McCarthy said during rookie minicamp. “It’s the same terminology. The terminology will be pretty seamless for him.”
There are a few million reasons for a player drafted in the first round to be excited about his new team. For Jones, when it was the Packers who called his name with the 26th overall pick, there was more reason for optimism than usual that his NFL home in Green Bay was going to work out well.
“Lou Spanos, and my head coach (at UCLA), Jim Mora, they pretty much told me when I got drafted here, ‘You know, you’re not going to have to learn too much because we run the same thing here,'” Jones said. “I said, ‘We do?’ I didn’t know. I’m pretty excited with where I’m at.”
Jones found out on the first day of Packers rookie minicamp that his college coaches weren’t exaggerating whatsoever. The playbook practically looked like photocopied pages of what Jones learned at UCLA, except for the green and gold logos replacing the Bruins colors.
“I’m looking at the playbook and I see pretty much all our installs from when I went to UCLA to here,” Jones said. “For me, it’s like, let me go to Install 4 and 5 because I know the first three installs off the top of my head. Let me start learning what other guys on the field, so I can play faster.”
The one notable difference that Jones spotted as he paged through the Packers’ playbook took him all of one day to figure out.
“There’s always nuances in any new defense you’re playing in,” Jones said. “Now, we’re a yard off the ball and I kind of didn’t understand it at first. But now, on Day 2, I’ve got it.”
Jones considers himself a student of the game. Even with the similarities defensively between UCLA and Green Bay, Jones isn’t using his fortunate circumstance to slack off while the rest of his new teammates attempt to catch up with his conceptual understanding. No, Jones wants to master the playbook sooner than later so that he can just play instinctively.
Though Jones wouldn’t say how many sacks he expects to get as a rookie, the 22-year-old has big plans for his NFL future.
“I want to be the best football player of all time,” Jones said on draft night. “That’s my goal. In order for me to achieve that goal, everything has to be in line.”
Even if Jones somehow falls short of becoming the best football player of all time during his rookie season, the Packers do need him to make plays behind the line of scrimmage immediately. That was Jones’ specialty at UCLA, collecting 6.5 sacks and 19 stops-for-loss (20th-best in the nation) last season.
“They took a chance on me, so I’m going to give it my all and do my best so we can bring a championship back here,” Jones said.
Unlike the majority of the defensive linemen on Green Bay’s roster, Jones is a three-down type of player. In college, Jones stopped the run effectively and put pressure on the quarterback while lining up both outside and inside.
“We feel he brings versatility from the standpoint that he has very good length,” Capers said on draft night. “He’s athletic and he’s long, so he moves with ease. I think that he’ll be able to give us rush inside. In our 3-4, he can play out at defensive end, and he can be an inside player and do a good job against both the run and the pass inside.”
It’s for that reason that Jones needs to prove once training camp begins in late July that he can win a starting job from Day 1.
“That should be everyone’s goal,” Jones said of being a starter. “I feel like that comes with trying to be the best. You shouldn’t be here and try to be a No. 2 guy. We’re all grown, this is the pros now. This is it. This is the top of everyone’s game.”
Green Bay was statistically a slightly above average defense last season, finishing 11th in the NFL in total yards allowed and in points allowed. But it was the Packers’ defense that was the team’s undoing in the postseason, giving up 45 points and 579 yards in a playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
McCarthy commented during the Scouting Combine that the loss in San Francisco was still in his head. General manager Ted Thompson, recognizing that Green Bay’s defensive roster needed another impact player, drafted Jones in the hope that the Packers might now have the complementary piece with Clay Matthews so that a repeat of that 49ers defeat doesn’t happen again in the coming seasons.
Jones isn’t lacking in confidence. If his game even comes close to living up to his own expectations, Jones may get his wish and one day be mentioned alongside the great players who have worn a Packers uniform.
“That’s all I know is being great,” Jones said. “That’s the way my mom raised me: Never just settle. I feel like my game is just now beginning and I’m trying to get better every day, establish myself here so that once it’s all said and done that people will remember me.”