In Around The NFL's "Making the Leap" series, we spotlight emerging players to keep an eye on in 2016. Whether rising from no-namer to quality starter or vaulting from standout to superstar, each of these individuals is poised to break through in the coming campaign.
Sometimes the formula for a player bursting into the national consciousness is simple: talent + opportunity = Making the Leap.
Byron Jones certainly has the talent, as evidenced by his successful rookie season. The Cowboys tossed the kitchen sink at the defensive back in his first year, and Jones responded by immediately becoming the team's best secondary defender. In Year 2, Dallas plans to make Jones a permanent safety, which will give him the opportunity to become the ballhawk the Cowboys desperately need.
Why Jones is on the list
Even in a league boasting some of the best athletes in the world, Jones' athleticism leaps off the screen. It isn't merely in spandex at the NFL Scouting Combine that the 6-foot, 205-pound defensive back can display his natural ability. His game film shows consistent flashes of speed and leaping ability, which he uses to swat away passes.
During Jones' rookie campaign, the Cowboys asked him to be their do-it-all defender. He started seven games at safety and four at corner. He covered receivers in the slot, he defended on the outside of the formation. He took on tight ends, tackled running backs in space and played free safety, strong safety and even a hybrid linebacker role in certain formations. As NFL defenses scramble to find their own movable chess piece, Jones proved he can succeed in whatever matchup he's tossed into.
However, it's clear when watching him on NFL Game Pass that he's best suited at the free safety spot. From this deep location, Jones excels at reading and diagnosing plays -- both the run and the pass. Playing safety allows him to attack downhill, and he owns the speed to recover, even when he takes a false first step. That speed also ensures Dallas has a defender on the back end who can chase down plays from across the field when necessary.
Jones is solid in run support, especially from his safety spot, but where his skill really shines is in pass coverage: Pro Football Focus ranked him seventh among safeties in coverage in 2015. While not always clean technique-wise as a rookie, Jones wasn't afraid to be physical at the line of scrimmage, and he has the speed to stick with receivers running across the formation.
His physicality is immediately obvious. Unafraid to deliver a big hit when necessary, he tussled with many bigger pass catchers. As a hybrid player, Jones certainly will be asked to cover tight ends on many occasions in 2016. He got some solid foundation work in that area last year.
Over the course of 16 games, Jones faced the likes of Rob Gronkowski, Greg Olsen, Jordan Reed, Jimmy Graham, Benjamin Watson, Larry Donnell, Zach Ertz and Richard Rodgers, among others. While Gronk taught him a few things about the difficulty in defending superhero-sized tight ends, Jones did not back down, played physical and appeared to learn from his mistakes each time -- rarely duplicating an error.
Jones' size and versatility also make him an asset in red-zone coverage, where he can take on bigger tight ends, run with slot receivers on quick pass plays and thwart the size advantage of taller outside wideouts.
The Cowboys' smart decision to move Jones to safety full-time will free him to become a playmaker solely on the back end of the formation in 2016, while remaining a flexible chess piece who can cover up for weaknesses or injury in a pinch.
Obstacles he'll face
While Jones possesses the athleticism to become a ballhawk, he can improve his skills when the ball is in the air. He earned nine pass breakups as a rookie but didn't intercept one ball, something Jones found "pitiful."
"I didn't get any interceptions, which is pitiful for being out there that many plays," he told reporters in March. "That's something I've been working on in the offseason. I'm looking forward to going into this season kind of having an idea about what to expect."
Improved route recognition will aid Jones' ability to make those game-changing plays. Several times last season, he was a half-step slow in diagnosing a route, which negated chances to break up or intercept a pass.
The anticipated return of corner Orlando Scandrick from injury allows the Cowboys to move Jones to safety permanently, but if injuries strike, that plan could change. Some of Jones' biggest struggles as a rookie came from the corner spot. If he's asked to move around the defense as much as he did in 2015, it could end up curtailing his growth.
Expectations for 2016
The Cowboys badly need a ballhawk on the back end, something they've lacked for years. Dallas hasn't had a defensive player record more than six interceptions in a single season since 1985. The lack of interceptions last year was a team-wide problem for Dallas, as the Cowboys totaled just eight picks -- Jeff Heath led the way with a mere two.
Given Jones' move to safety on a full-time basis, we expect the defense to force more turnovers. While he might not morph into an Ed Reed-type playmaker in his second pro season, the interceptions will come as he gets more comfortable eyeing the quarterback and making quick breaks on the ball.