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NFL Draft

Chris Jones’ Position Change Another Sign Of NFL’s Evolution

  • The Draft Network
  • June 25, 2021
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Everything in life is about evolution. It’s about improvement and innovation. It’s about trying something no one has done before, pushing the limits of whatever it is you are doing to reach new achievements, either in height, time spent, or just plain efficiency.

Football certainly falls under this umbrella of evolutionary achievement. The goal of the game has always been the same: score more points than your opponent. But the way we have achieved that goal has come in many forms over the last century of the game. From the early days of the single-wing offense to the wildcat, the wishbone, the Coryell Era, the West Coast craze to full-blown no-huddle spread offenses, scoring points will look different depending on which decade you’re watching—and that doesn’t even include any of the big-time defensive adjustments, like the introduction of man match coverages, tite fronts, and all sorts of creativity needed for defenses to evolve as offenses have. 

Though the strategies and structures of the game are often what we point to as the major changes, it’s not the new schemes that demand evolution, it’s the players that implement them. The story of football, while it is told in the words that could be used to describe an ever-intensifying chess match, boils down to this: The best players yield the best results.

This has been the cornerstone in which we have seen the game of football evolve over the years. As coaches have recognized skill sets within each player, the ones who can think outside the box find a way to maximize what they can do for the team, even if that method is unconventional or even undiscovered. Tight ends kicking out wide as slot wide receivers; running backs doing the same. Safeties as nickel defenders, situational pass rushers who are only in for certain packages, defensive linemen who achieve one specific goal in a specific alignment that, when streamlined, increases efficiency for those around them.

Today’s NFL is all about finding that edge. Players today are so good and so athletic, organizations are so scientifically optimized in their training and improving, coaching and front office staffs are so in-tuned with value and optimal team building (not always, but you get the point) that anywhere you can find an edge over your opponent, it’s worth exploring. All of that likely contributes to why the Kansas City Chiefs are planning to take one of their best interior defensive players, Chris Jones, and move him out on the edge more this upcoming season.

"[Jones] is an imposing player inside," defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said. "We all know that. ... Hopefully, we will gain something on the edge. When somebody changes a position, obviously the first part of it is the mental part of it. Chris is working through that. That's important when you change a position. It's just not that easy to pick up a whole new spot. There are some different things with a defensive end.

Spagnuolo wasn’t lying when he said Jones is an imposing player inside. The list of interior defensive linemen not named Aaron Donald better than Jones is a slim group. Over the past four seasons, Jones has played the majority of his snaps as a left or right defensive tackle, but in 2020 and in 2018 he did have more than 100 snaps in each season at the right defensive end position. 

"I feel like I can be productive inside or outside – wherever the team puts me – but I think there's more advantages on the outside because you can't really double team me [out there]," Jones said. "You can chip, but you're not really getting as many double teams as a three-tech would in this defense. I'm excited about that."

That last part of what Jones mentions goes back to the evolution of play. As coaches identify who their most talented players are, it’s then their job to put them in positions that best help the team, whether that be a favorable individual matchup for them or a matchup that yields a favorable matchup for a different player. Another example of this can be seen with the recent success of outside linebacker Leonard Floyd with the Los Angeles Rams, who saw a career year as an edge rusher last season after being used as an off-ball linebacker for much of his career before then. The reason? It’s all about the advantages of what he does well and the matchups that bring that out most.

"I think it could create advantages on this defense along the line of scrimmage,” Jones said. Maybe we find a matchup that we like and we're able to exchange gaps now… I'll rush from the left or right – I'll even stand up and rush from the middle as a linebacker if I have to - I'm just excited to learn this position…I'm still learning, but [I feel like] I'm progressing well."

On a somewhat related note, during the NBA Playoffs, former player and now analyst, Ryan Hollins, tweeted:

There are two ways to look at this tweet. If we take it literally, it appears Hollins does not understand that the NFL, fundamentally, cannot be compared to the NBA in such a manner. In the NFL, there are 11 players on the field and their position names come more from alignment requirements, whereas the NBA’s position labels simply come from where players typically are from a spacing standpoint. But if we take his tweet as more of “in spirit” than literally, you can understand where he’s coming from. 

The NFL is more flexible in its structure today than it has ever been. This has changed how we label players. Remember when Jimmy Graham was trying to dispute that he should get the franchise tag as a wide receiver instead of a tight end because he played more detached from the line of scrimmage than on it? This is sort of what you could take Hollins’ tweet to mean.

We’ve seen players like Percy Harvin, Tavon Austin, Cordarrelle Patterson, Curtis Samuel, Laviska Shenault, and Antonio Gibson blur the positional lines as “X-factor” kinds of players on the offensive side of the ball, and the whole point is to put them in spots where their skill sets can achieve the biggest advantage or mismatch. Flip to the defensive side and Jones—not all that different from a running back playing in the slot or something of that nature—is another example of the potential success you can have when you’re willing to get creative with your top talent. 

The Chiefs have noted that there, of course, is some risk involved. If Jones isn’t comfortable with this change, then the versatility is a hindrance on one of their best players. But all creative thinking has a trial period.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say the NFL is on the path to a positionless era, but versatility, creativity, and open-mindedness appear to be king. Perhaps Jones’ trial will lead to the latest success for creativity breeding evolution.

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