I can remember the debate over why Mario Williams was struggling in his first two years in the NFL. One reason for his inconsistency was playing each end position, which theoretically should be an easy flip of alignments, but in practice it’s not. Left tackles are generally more athletic than right tackles, and right tackles are usually the stronger of the two, while the Y-tight end usually lines up on the right side. Also, more runs are called in that direction, and the footwork and handwork is mirrored too.
Those are the concerns with college pass-rushers making the transition to a different position in the pros. Whether it’s a defensive end moving to outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme or a defensive end sliding inside to defensive tackle in sub-packages or going from weak-side to strong-side, there’s a reason to be cautious even if it looks like the correct position for a player.
Those are the worries with UCLA’s Datone Jones, who played a variety of techniques in the Bruins’ 3-4 scheme. You name the alignment, and he’s played it. Many will praise him for it because that indicates versatility, and to a degree it does, but there’s a fine line between versatility and stunting development. For all his physical tools, Jones still has learning to do if he wants to play any position he’s assigned in the pros.
He’s best fit as a three technique in a 4-3 or 3-4 under front (1 gap). That’s the ideal fit because he has the quickness, strength, and explosiveness to give fits to interior offensive linemen. But he can also play closed end (to the strength of the formation) in either front, and that will appeal to a league that’s increasingly implementing under fronts. There’s also a chance Jones plays the four technique across from the tackle, like he did in college. He didn’t two-gap much in college, but neither did Dontari Poe when he was selected by the Chiefs to play nose tackle.
Jones was an impressive player at the four technique because of the aforementioned traits, which were on display against Stanford this past season. The Bruins were in an Okie 3-4 front. This means the two guards of the line were uncovered, with the tackles and center covered by a nose tackle and two ends. Jones was the left end to the strong-side.
Jones is a dangerous pass-rusher in this situation because even though he’s primarily a read-and-react player, he has the ability to act quickly downhill, which can be startling for the blocker. When Jones got off the line of scrimmage, he was the first to make contact, getting his hands up and into the blocker’s pads instantly.
While he worked laterally down the line of scrimmage, Jones kept his shoulders parallel to the line, which indicates he has leverage and balance.
Then he extended his arms, popped the blocker in the chest, and moved his hands down as he burst into the backfield. He then took the ball-carrier down in the backfield for one of his 19 tackles for a loss on the year.
Clearly Jones has the ability to play a variety of techniques along the line. He’s explosive and frequently plays with a forward-lean like an aggressive soccer player. When those two traits are combined with his burst, he’s particularly dangerous.
That’s why many talent evaluators will consider him as a three technique defensive tackle at the next level. He has the ability to potentially cause havoc and become a quarterback’s worst nightmare by attacking through the B-gap, one of the shortest paths to the passer.
That said, what if a mastermind defensive coordinator sees potential in Jones as a closed end in an under front? He has the talent to play the position, which is obvious when you look at the diagrammed play above. There’s little doubt about Jones’ talent, but there should be questions about where exactly he will play in the NFL as the league continues to move to exotic, versatile fronts that feature the under concept. Ideally, he would start off at one position and become good at it before being moved around the line.
If he immediately plays at a variety of positions, there’s a chance he doesn’t become great at any of them in the long-term.