Rookie free safety Byron Jones opened the season as arguably the most overlooked and overshadowed first-round pick in Dallas Cowboys history.
It wasn’t that the 27th overall pick from Connecticut didn’t have the potential or promise to be an impact player.
It was just that the Cowboys had so many other issues, including the holdout of receiver Dez Bryant, the addition of controversial defensive end Greg Hardy and fellow rookies Randy Gregory and La’el Collins.
Gregory and Collins not only came to the team under more salacious circumstances, but also seemingly flashed their potential quicker at defensive end and guard respectively.
It resulted in an environment that allowed Jones to develop in relative obscurity as the team tried him out at cornerback and safety.
It’s amazing that he’s been able to do this as a rookie.
Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Marinelli
Eight weeks into the season, not only is Jones a starter for the Cowboys (2-5) but, veteran defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli also says Jones is the best rookie defensive back he has had.
“I can’t remember one as a rookie,” said Marinelli, whose NFL career spans 20 years and includes stops in Tampa Bay, Detroit and Chicago before coming to Dallas two years ago. “Yeah, as a rookie coming out playing as well as he has. I can’t remember.”
Marinelli can’t see any rookie defensive back from the 2015 class playing as well as Jones right now. He is second on the team with four pass deflections and fifth in tackles with 26.
What has impressed Marinelli most is Jones’ versatility, playing cornerback and safety. His initial role was in the dime and nickel packages and as a primary cover man for tight ends. He has played strong safety before supplanting J.J. Wilcox as the starter at free safety on Sunday.
“It’s unbelievable,” Marinelli said. “I’ve never been around that.”
Jones, who played safety his first two years in college before moving to cornerback his final two years, knew the transition to the NFL was going to be tough.
That the Cowboys didn’t have a set position for him and moving him around made it more complicated.
He gets beat and he’d shake it off. He has a great awareness about him just to keep playing. He is mentally tough.
“I’d say it was beneficial,” Jones said. “You never want a big spotlight on you. At the end of the day, you’ve got to do the best you can to ignore that hype. For me, it was nice coming in here — we’ve got a lot of big stars in here. So it’s not all on you, not all on your shoulders. It gave me a chance to get better and not get frustrated too early. I just kept plugging away and kept getting better.”
Jones caught the Cowboys’ attention in minicamp for his ability to handle everything the Cowboys threw at him without flinching.
“It’s amazing that he’s been able to do this as a rookie,” Marinelli said. “That’s even a lot for a veteran to do that. But he has handled everything well. He’s talented, but he works at it, that’s the key.”
Jones made his mark early with his ability to cover some of the best tight ends in the league. including New England’s Rob Gronkowski and Seattle’s Jimmy Graham.
That goes back to his experiences against Cowboys tight end Jason Witten in minicamp and training camp.
“He gets beat and he’d shake it off,” Marinelli said. “He has a great awareness about him just to keep playing. He is mentally tough. I think he embraces it. He faces Witt all the time and guys like that. I don’t know all the rookies, I don’t keep track, I can’t believe that anybody’s playing as well.”
The Cowboys hope Jones’ range and coverage ability in the middle of the field will pay off with more impact plays and turnovers.
Jones rarely comes off the field. He starts at free safety and moves to the nickel on passing downs when Wilcox comes back on the field, allowing him to play every defensive snap against the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday.
That play-making impact will be even more important against Philadelphia and its pass-happy, up-tempo attack Sunday at AT&T Stadium.
“He’s got a chance back there,” Marinelli said. “The more speed you put on the field you got a chance to hopefully make more plays. He needs to get the ball. That’s what’s going to separate him is start taking the ball away.”