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Jaguars safety Josh Jones emerges from his 'dark place' to earn starting safety job

By Gary Smits, The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.) on

Published in Football

Take football away from a football player, and you have what Jaguars safety Josh Jones describes as "a dark place."

He's seen the light in Jacksonville.

Jones, cast off by Green Bay and Dallas within a four-month span last year, got new life with the Jaguars in a system he said he has long admired and believes takes the best advantage of his skill set.

"It's been a long journey, in a span of four years," Jones said on Thursday after the Jaguars practice. "I wouldn't want it any other way. You go through what you go through because you need to know what you know. I'm in a place where my coaches believe in me."

Jones worked his way up on the depth chart from third team to starter in training camp, making the Jaguars' decision to trade Ronnie Harrison to Cleveland easier.

He responded in Sunday's 27-20 victory over Indianapolis by leading the Jags in tackles with 12, despite coming out of the game at one point with a bruised leg.

Defensive coordinator Todd Wash said Jones caught his attention early in training camp.

"He was down at the third spot (on the depth chart) when we started and as soon as he got in there, he started communicating, real loud," Wash said. "The rest of the team was like, 'who in the heck is this guy?' He really jumped off the tape about how he studies and his ability to make plays. You've seen that on Sunday."

But, as Jones alluded to, he's had a series of ups and downs in less than four seasons in the NFL.

Jones was Green Bay's second-round draft pick and the 61st player selected overall from N.C. State in 2017 after collecting eight interceptions, two fumble recoveries and 17 passes broken up in three years with the Wolfpack.

Jones backed up Morgan Burnett at strong safety to begin the 2017 season and eventually had seven starts. His first start was in a 27-24 overtime victory over Cincinnati when he had 11 solo tackles and one sack.

Jones had 71 tackles, two sacks and broke up five passes. Despite that, he began the 2018 season behind Kentrell Brice, then was slowed by an ankle injury. Jones eventually made five starts and had 56 tackles.

Here's where the story gets murky. Reports in the Green Bay media suggested Jones had trouble covering deep passes and he wasn't thrilled when Packers coordinator Mike Pettine began using him in the box as an extra inside linebacker.

Jones reportedly asked for a trade after the Packers made two moves at safety in the 2019 off-season, signing Adrian Amos in free agency and trading up late in the first round to grab Darnell Savage.

Jones didn't attend OTAs. He reported for mini-camp but was limited because of a hamstring injury.

Jones then tangled with coach Matt LeFleur early in training camp when he got into a scuffle with running back Tra Carson, breaking a rule LeFleur had set down in his first season banning any fights.

LeFleur kicked Jones out of practice but admitted to reporters after the practice that he didn't have the best view of the incident.

"You guys probably had a better vantage point than I did," he said. "I mean, I'm well behind the play and sometimes your vision gets a little cloudy just with all those bodies in there."

Jones couldn't make any further dent on the depth chart during training camp and was waived on Aug. 25, 2019, for what the Packers said was a "non-football Illness."

Jones said there was nothing wrong with him.

 

It took more than a month for him to latch on with another team, the Dallas Cowboys. That was the time he said he was at his lowest ebb.

"I've been playing this game since I was 8 years old ... I love this game and anyone that's around me knows I play this game out of pure love," Jones said. "I felt like I didn't know if I was going to play again. A lot of things run through your head. What's going to happen, which team are you going to go to ... a lot of uncertainty. For the first time in my life football wasn't there."

Jones eventually was signed to the Dallas practice squad on Oct. 2, then promoted to the active roster on Nov. 16. He played in six games, on special teams, before being waived on Dec. 28.

This time, Jones didn't have to wait long. The Jaguars signed him three days later.

Jones set out to prove to the Jags they made the right decision. With no off-season program or OTAs, he immersed himself in the playbook and the team's virtual program and began asserting himself from the beginning of training camp.

"I spent the whole off-season going through the playbook every day," he said. "Going over plays, audibles, motions. When we did get to camp, I was on point. When everything was shut down, I took that opportunity to focus on football."

Jaguars coach Doug Marrone said it was easy to see that Jones reported to training camp ready mentally and physically.

"Josh just stood out right off the bat," Marrone said. "He came back with knowledge and enthusiasm and being in the right position and making plays from the first day walking into the building. I think every time we had given him an opportunity, he showed up big, he really did."

Marrone said Jones seemed to realize the Jaguars might be his last shot at staying in the league.

"A lot of times players that maybe bounce around a little bit or something ... you're like, 'Hey, this is it. This is the last opportunity for me,' and I think that might have played into his mindset."

Jones could be one of the best overall athletes on the team. He's roughly the same size as Harrison (6 feet 2 inches, 220 pounds) and ran a 4.41 40-yard dash at the 2017 NFL Combine.

As a high school senior in Michigan, Jones was an impact player on both sides of the ball. He had five interceptions and returned two fumbles for touchdowns on defense, and rushed for 668 yards and 19 touchdowns, and had 303 receiving yards, and four scores.

Jones said the Jaguars' defense under Wash, which is a variation of Seattle's defense under coach Pete Carroll, is more to his liking.

"Coming out of the draft, Seattle won big, and I said, 'this is the system I need to be in,'" Jones said. "Here I am. It fits my skill set, a guy who can run sideline-to-sideline, as athletic as I am - not to toot my own horn - but to show my God-given ability. It's fun."

Wash agreed that Jones may have found his niche.

"We like his speed, his athleticism ... and we feel really comfortable playing him," Wash said.

And Jones has been given the gift of getting his passion back.

"I was on the outside looking in," he said. "I never want to experience that. I never want anyone to experience that."

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