If you sincerely want to flatter Chandler Jones, the Cardinals' All-Pro linebacker, do not tell him that he has more sacks and forced fumbles than any defender since he entered the league in 2012, or that his 96 sacks through eight seasons are four more than Bruce Smith, the all-time sacks leader, had at the same point in his career, or that last year, Jones became one of two players in league history to collect 19-plus sacks and eight-plus forced fumbles in a season, or that he can join Hall of Famer Reggie White as the only players in league history with four consecutive seasons of at least 13 sacks if he reaches the total this year.
If you really want to give Jones the warm and fuzzies, tell him he can do better against the run, that he needs to elevate his formation recognition, that his eye placement and hand work need improvement. Jones wants to leave a mark as one of the best to ever play the game, and you don't do that by accentuating your accomplishments. You work to eliminate your deficiencies, which is why he appreciated defensive coordinator Vance Joseph giving him an honest critique and action plan at the end of last season.
"I have a vision of myself," Jones said recently by phone, "and that vision of Chandler Jones, the football player, isn't who I am today fully. There's definitely a lot more growing to be done, and I truly believe the person who can get me to that next level -- whoever that is -- has to be someone who has done it more times than me, someone you can actually call a master of the sport, someone who has done it or seen it 100,000 times. Someone like Vance Joseph, I would call him a master of this sport. He knows what it takes. He's been an NFL head coach, he's a defensive coordinator, he's played in the league, and he's that person on our staff that can get me to that next level. He sees the potential that I haven't reached, so it's flattering when he points out where I can improve."
Joseph provides scouting reports to every defender at the end of the season, identifying three things each did well and three areas for improvement. The positives for Jones were obvious: tremendous effort, great edge-rush presence and tremendous ability to strip the ball when making a sack, all of which resulted in at least a half sack in 12 of 16 games, despite opponents regularly sliding protections to his side or putting two blockers in his path to the backfield.
But the deficiencies also jumped out at Joseph. They might not have been obvious to casual observers, but greatness is often accompanied by an attention to detail. Jones wants to be great. Joseph wants him to be great. And by demanding accountability from each other, each hopes to get what he wants.
Said Joseph: "Every player has his holes, and I told Chandler, 'If you want to be considered for Defensive Player of the Year this season, you've got to play the run game better. You've got to be more violent on tight ends, more violent on tackles, and more of a physical wrecking force, which you should be and can be. Until then, they won't see you as a dominant player.' He's a great pass rusher, a great pass rusher. But he's got to get better in playing the run game and being violent in the run game."
The plan is to have Jones spend more practice time with the defensive line and Brentson Buckner, a respected position coach who played 12 seasons in the league, some of it alongside end/linebacker Julius Peppers, a retired nine-time Pro Bowler whose long frame and athleticism are reminiscent of Jones' skill set. The desire is to get Jones as comfortable playing in the darkness between the tackles as he is playing in the light on the edge.
Joseph also wants him to spend more time in the classroom to study formations, contending that blockers will tip whether the play is a run or pass based on alignments or movements at the snap. Lastly, he is stressing eye placement to Jones. Premier edge rushers tend to lock in on the quarterback, which can cause them to miss what's happening directly in front of them. For instance, if Jones is focused only on the quarterback at the snap, he might immediately miss the tackle blocking down on a run play, and that could be the difference between a back gaining no yards or 4 yards.
"A pass rusher is like a cornerback: they want to see the quarterback," said Joseph. "But for him to go to the next level, he has to play the run game and first and second down better than he plays third down. If he does that, he'll be Player of the Year."
The good thing is, Jones is as coachable today as he was when he entered the league as a first-round pick by the Patriots, who traded him to Arizona before the 2016 season. Individual success has not hardened him to the point that he feels his way is the right way or the only way. Joseph jokes that his star defender is like a rookie when he corrects him, adding: "He has never gotten over being traded. He still thinks he's getting cut every day."
That humility and willingness to put in the work are factors in him being a two-time All-Pro and member of the NFL's 2010s All-Decade Team. Strangely, Jones still seems under-recognized despite those accolades. Perhaps it has to do with playing in Arizona, where the Cardinals have yet to record a winning season since his arrival and have totaled just eight victories the last two seasons.
"If people are sleeping on us, let them sleep. The Cardinals will tuck them in." Chandler Jones
But there is a sense that change is coming. The Cardinals won two of their final three games last season to wrap quarterback Kyler Murray's promising rookie year, added All-Pro wideout DeAndre Hopkins in an offseason trade, upgraded the offensive line with rookie third-round pick Josh Jones and made significant additions on defense, drafting linebacker Isaiah Simmons in the first round and signing outside linebacker Devon Kennard, inside linebacker De'Vondre Campbell and tackle Jordan Phillips in free agency.
"If people are sleeping on us, let them sleep," Jones said. "The Cardinals will tuck them in."
Jones and wideout Larry Fitzgerald are the only Cardinals to have appeared in a Super Bowl, with Jones the only one to experience the joy of winning the Vince Lombardi Trophy, which he accomplished with the Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX. He talks about it with his younger teammates and can see them perk up as he describes memories of walking the red carpet, seeing the flashbulbs go off at kickoff, hearing the roar of the crowd.
For the Cardinals to have any chance of playing for a championship, Jones likely will have to take his game even higher, and that progress can't be measured in sacks alone. Both he and Joseph agree that his sacks could dip, but his game could be more impactful if he follows through on his offseason action plan.
"If he does that, he's going to be the best they've ever seen at outside linebacker," Joseph said of the 6-foot-5, 265-pound standout. "He's a cross between a lot of players. He's so long and so gangly but also so twitchy. It's so rare to see a body type like that. But if he can correct a couple of those things -- his eyes and his formation recognition -- he can be a lot better than he is."