Cardinals’ Chandler Jones having big year in desert

FILE - In this Nov. 26, 2017, file photo, Arizona Cardinals outside linebacker Chandler Jones (55) tackles Jacksonville Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette during the second half of an NFL football game in Glendale, Ariz. Jones is having the kind of monster season the Arizona Cardinals envisioned when they rewarded him with such a big contract.  (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) Ask outside linebacker Chandler Jones if the millions the Arizona Cardinals invested in him was money well spent.

”Yeah,” he says. ”Yeah.”

Maybe it’s gone unnoticed nationally on a mediocre team in the desert, but Jones is having a monster season.

Entering this week’s play, Jones leads the NFL in sacks (14), tackles for loss (24) and quarterback hits (27).

Jones has no bigger cheerleader than Cardinals defensive coordinator James Bettcher, who said the big linebacker has proven himself not just as a pass rusher but as a run stopper.

”I think he has maybe put to rest any inclination that he’s not a physical player on the edge,” Bettcher said. ”… His tape speaks for itself. I love how here recently he’s playing against the run, how physical he’s been at the point. I said it, I think, three weeks ago. There’s no question he should be a defensive player of the year candidate.”

In March 2016, the Cardinals acquired Jones from the New England Patriots for guard Jonathan Cooper and a second-year draft pick. A year later, Arizona signed him to a five-year, $82.5 million contract with $51 million guaranteed. He obviously is a big part of the franchise’s plans.

And he has lived up to their expectations.

Cornerback Patrick Peterson said ”it’s fun” to watch Jones make plays on the field. But he gets a far better idea of Jones’ talents when he watches tape of the game.

”To see some of the body positions, some of the hand placements that he’s able to use to get to the quarterback is definitely fun to watch,” Peterson said. ”Chandler is having a big year. Last year he was kind of getting the system under his belt. … Now that he has a year under his belt, he’s rolling, he’s flying around. He’s much more vocal.

”Guys look for him to make plays now and it’s going to be like that for the rest of his time here for sure.”

The 6-foot-5 Jones, who came to training camp at 260 pounds, 10 pounds lighter than the year before, believes he is far from what he can be.

”This offseason I’m going to be working more and more on my craft,” he said after Thursday’s practice in preparation for Sunday’s game at Washington.

”Trying to figure out how to become an elite defensive end, outside linebacker,” Jones said. ”As far as a personal level, I feel there’s a long way to go. I’m not where I want to be. Not at all, nowhere near.”

Jones, in the prime of his career at age 27, has had double-digit sacks the last three seasons and in four of his six NFL seasons. He already has broken his previous personal high for sacks – 12 + set with the Patriots in 2015. No Cardinal before has had 14 sacks through 13 games. The franchise record is 16 + by Simeon Rice in 1999.

Jones’ job was made more difficult by the season-ending knee injury to Markus Golden, who had a team-high 11 + sacks in 2016. Golden’s departure accelerated the attention offenses placed on Jones.

”Teams are definitely chipping,” he said. ”They were chipping Markus, too. So all of his chips are coming my way. But like I said, you’ve got to do what you can do and work with what you can work with and what you have.”

Much of Jones’ work comes off the field, studying film of opponents.

”I feel a lot has to do with film study,” he said. ”A lot of times pre-snap you get a chance to see what a team’s doing, what their tendencies are and kind of get a head start on having to play.”

The sacks, and Jones’ windmill celebration, get the attention. He is just as happy when he stuffs a run.

”Every pass rusher in the NFL, they don’t want to be labeled as just a pass rusher,” Jones said. ”They say, `No, he rushes the passer but he can’t stop the run.’ So as a defensive end, you want to have the full package. You want to stop the run, you can get the tackles and the tackles for loss.”

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