© Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports
In mid-November, D.J. Jones was aspiring for one thing: remaining healthy.
He failed to fulfill that goal.
It was Week 11, and the 49ers’ second time facing the Arizona Cardinals in two weeks. Jones was sidelined for his second time that season (and first time since Week 7, against the Washington Redskins), with a nagging groin injury.
He’d go on to sprain one ankle in Week 13 against the Baltimore Ravens, and sprain the other ankle against the New Orleans Saints in Week 14. By Dec. 12, Jones’ season was over.
There is no perfect formula for quantifying the value of a player’s season while factoring in injuries. Was Jones’ 2019 campaign great because of his performance in the 11 games he played? Was it poor because he missed eight games, including the final six?
Like most things, it’s not clear-cut.
Too often, performance is conflated with injuries. The notion that a player is “bad” because he’s not on the field belies a sort of sinister, all-too-common criticism of players, which tends to be born out of critics’ frustration with and misunderstanding of their lack of availability.
You can be sure that level of frustration is unmatched by the players themselves. Jones told KNBR on Nov. 20, at that point, his second time missing a game last season, that his one goal was to remain healthy.
“I guess I surprised some people, but I’ve got to finish the season.” Jones said. “I want to surprise people by finishing the season healthy and dominating and helping my team get as many wins as possible.”
What we saw from Jones in 2019 provided every reason to believe that, if healthy, he could be, and may already be, one of the best nose tackles in the NFL. At his best, he’s an interior wrecking ball whose low center of gravity at 6’0″, 321 pounds, coupled with his quick-twitch explosiveness, results in centers and guards trying to catch what is effectively a human cannonball being fired at point-blank.
By almost any measure, Jones’ 2019 season was the best of his three-year career. But by that same token, it was the most disappointing. And it’s that explosiveness at his size that has hampered him with injuries.
When the 49ers were most in need of his run-swallowing nature, and occasional center-stunning pass-rushing knack, his season had already reached its unceremonious conclusion.
On Thursday, Jones said his “ankle is 100 percent” and that “physically, I’m doing great.”
With both DeForest Buckner and Sheldon Day in Indianapolis, the 49ers need Jones healthy. And in the final year of his rookie deal, Jones can get himself paid, to varying degrees, based on two factors: his health and demonstrated pass-rushing ability.
If you’re a run-stopping nose tackle in the NFL, there is a cap to how much you can make. The money is in sacking the quarterback, and it’s obvious Jones, who secured the first two sacks of his career last season, has the potential to develop into a five-sacks-per-season interior guy.
There are very few men who can do this to another man.
49ers DJ Jones is going to be a problem in 2020 ✍️ pic.twitter.com/5Jfje7ioeO
— TheSFNiners (@TheSFNiners) February 20, 2020
Jones — a smart as well as hilarious person — said Thursday that he’s focusing on developing himself as a pass rusher. He knows where the money is, and he knows what he has to do to become a third-down option.
The key, he said, as told to him by defensive line coach Kris Kocurek is almost confoundingly simple: keep the feet moving.
You might be saying, “What does that even mean? Why isn’t he doing that already?”
Jones is a run-first nose tackle. His job, especially on first and second down, is to ensure that he eats up space and if a runner comes in his direction, that runner goes no farther. That necessitates patience and reading the offensive line, which means Jones isn’t just barreling forward into the great beyond. He has to maintain gap integrity.
So for a nose tackle to become a pass rusher, it really may be as simple — and simultaneously difficult — as keeping those feet moving.
“I know I have it in me. … If I don’t stop my feet, I feel like I can get to the quarterback,” Jones said. “The second my feet get stuck in mud, I’m not going to get to the passer … I’m so used to run blocking and standing the guy up and looking for the ball to come to me, but with pass rush, you got to go get the quarterback. I’ve never really been a third-down guy, but I can be that guy, and that’s what I’m working on now.”
In the span of 11 games last year, despite being absent from the 49ers’ playoff run, Jones made a name for himself as a bull-in-the-china shop-type interior defensive lineman. If he can translate that havok-wreaking to passing downs and most importantly stay healthy, he would find himself on a crash course to a well-deserved chunk of change.