On Monday, we talked about Fred Warner going from a promising rookie to the best coverage linebacker in the NFL. If there is a player on the roster that can make that type of leap, it’s San Francisco 49ers defensive tackle D.J. Jones. Drafted in the sixth round of the 2017 draft, Jones only played 304 snaps for the 49ers before a season-ending ankle injury in New Orleans. With DeForest Buckner no longer in the picture, Jones must now be the run-stopping force San Francisco “desperately needs” inside. Jones is more of a nose tackle than a three-technique, but that doesn’t mean Jones cannot get after the quarterback.
Saying Jones can develop into a star as Warner did may come off premature and as a “fanboy” to some, but it doesn’t take long to realize you’re watching a potential star. Jones had flashed here and there early in the season, but he took his game to another level once the trade deadline passed. Jones played well against Carolina and Arizona, but it was the eight snaps against Seattle in Week 10 that were eye-opening. On those snaps, Jones beat his man three times, had the famous sack where he ran through the Seahawks center like football players run through the breakaway banner as they’re running onto the field before the game, and another quarterback hit for good measure. Jones was unblockable. Jones continued to dominant the next three games before getting injured.
Jones contemplated having surgery for his high-ankle sprain. Instead, Jones opted to rest and let the injury heal on its own. Jones told The Athletic’s Matt Barrows that he’s been healthy since mid-February. Jones’ health should lead to an expanded role in 2020. Jones told Barrows during a phone interview, “That’s the thing, we were so loaded, I didn’t have to play anything but nose.” That won’t be the case this season.
Making a case for D.J.
If you’re going to make a Warner or Arik Armstead type of jump, you have to have pieced together good play from the season before. Here is one play from each of Jones’ final five games (not counting the downpour in Baltimore) to show why I believe Jones will blossom into a start in 2020.
Against Carolina, D.J. had three stops and a sack. As he closed in on Kyle Allen, you saw Jones 1.75 10-yard split a hundredth of a second faster than Armstead) show up. Sacks aren’t a great indicator of pressure. In this case, it certainly wasn’t Jones’ most impressive play from the game. Jones had a couple of rushes where he beat his man and forced Christian McCaffrey to step up and help. Why’s that important? Because that means the trio of Armstead, Bosa, and Ford are guaranteed 1-on-1 opportunities. Jones had another play where he occupied both blockers, one was him shoving Trai Turner out of the way, and that led to Buckner making a stop. This play below is 4th & 1:
That’s Jones giving his all in a game where San Francisco is up 51-13. He chased down McCaffrey in the third quarter. Jones gives you everything he has every play. That’s step one to becoming a star.
Jones played 27 snaps against Arizona’s offense that lives in 11 and 10 personnel. That didn’t stop D.J. from making plays, though. To have a “break out” season, you also have to fit the scheme. The 49ers ran a lot of “Wide-9” against teams that spread them out. That leaves their defensive tackles and linebackers susceptible, especially if they’re slow to react. Quickness is one of Jones best attributes:
These plays translate to the passing game. So Jones fits the 49ers scheme with his quickness, and his wins against the run translate to third downs.
The Seahawks game was Jones’s true coming-out party. I touched on his ridiculous sack. The play that stood out was where D.J. forced Russell Wilson to throw the ball away. You can tell by the downhill angle Wilson took he thought he could get around the edge. Then Russ tried to use a ball fake against Jones, and in a split second, he’s 0-for-2. At the last minute, Wilson ran parallel with the line of scrimmage because he couldn’t outrun Jones.
If Jones can surprise one of the best athletes in the NFL with his athleticism, imagine how 300-pound lineman feel?
The 49ers didn’t need Jones in their first two playoff games, but his presence was missed in the Super Bowl. Kansas City was weak up the middle, and Jones would have made a difference that perhaps would have changed the outcome of the game. If I were to show you one play all season, it’d be this one:
He beats the center so quick off the snap that Jones gets into the backfield before the tight end can get across the formation. Come on. How often do you see that happen? Spoiler: Rarely.
There weren’t many stops on either side when San Francisco traveled to New Orleans. When that happens, you need someone to make a play on defense. The Saints took over up two in the third quarter, and Jones made a play. Here is lined up over the center:
Two plays later, the 49ers scored a touchdown.
Jone’s focus this offseason should be to up his conditioning. He told Barrows that he’s been taking a play out of Jerry Rice’s playbook and running “Zion Hill” at a local church in Greenville, South Carolina. Jones is talented enough to give you the same type of production a defensive tackle will at 31 would. I don’t believe it’s smart to ignore defensive tackle this offseason. The goal is to keep Jones healthy all season. That’s not going to happen if he’s playing 60 snaps a game. Some fans believe the 49ers are okay with Jullian Taylor, Solomon Tomas, Kevin Givens, and Kentavius Street. That’s a leap of faith and putting a lot of stock into players that haven’t proven anything. Jones has to prove he can stay healthy. If he can, San Francisco has another star on the defensive line.
Jones’ ceiling is a Vita Vea type of player where you’re not moving him off his spot, but he can also get pressure on the quarterback. Vea was a high draft pick. Entering a contract year, San Francisco would be thrilled with that type of output. If we don’t see a defensive tackle taken early in the draft, that’s a signal that the 49ers have supreme confidence in Jones—and rightfully so.