Chandler Jones introduces himself to Cincinnati's Isaiah Pead. (Getty Images)
With the 2011 NFL season in the books, it's time to turn our eyes to the NFL draft, and the pre-draft evaluation process. Right up to the draft, we'll be taking a closer look at the 50 players who may be the biggest NFL difference-makers when all is said and done.
We continue this year's series with Syracuse defensive end Chandler Jones. Jones will tell you that he isn't even the toughest guy in his own family. That would be his brother, Ultimate Fighter Jon Jones. "I feel like Jon is the toughest, but the best football player I would say is me," Chandler told WICZ in Birmingham before one of his older brother's light heavyweight title defenses. Chandler could get some arguments on the football front from oldest brother Art Jones, who currently plays for the Ravens. But while Art was a fifth-round pick in 2010 and plays sparingly, Chandler is projected as an early round pick and likely starter, despite a low career sack total (10) and an injury-shortened 2011 season.
What makes Chandler Jones special? Like his UFC-champion brother, he's a master of hand-to-hand combat.
Pros: Most collegiate pass rushers live and die by their quickness to the edge. It's rare to see a defensive end who excels at hand fighting and placement: the fine art of delivering an initial blow to a pass protector, ripping his arms so he cannot latch on, and getting the hands under the blocker's shoulder pads to steer him out of the way. Brown excels at these skills. He disengages from blocks easily and can bull rush or work inside of his defender. These skills allow him to be an effective pass rusher when lined up over an offensive tackle, a typical assignment for a Steelers-style 3-4 defensive end. Jones can create pressure while staying within his pass-rushing lane, an essential skill when playing on a team that blitzes frequently.
Jones diagnoses screen passes and draw plays well, and he has experience dropping into coverage. He intercepted a screen pass against Pitt, and the play showed both his awareness (he spotted the screen and flattened out to defend the receiver) and athleticism (he made a leaping catch). Jones hustles on the backside of plays and has enough speed to get down the line and make tackles in pursuit.
Cons: Jones has a long, angular frame, and for every Jason Pierre Paul who uses lankiness as an advantage, there are dozens of defenders who just get out-leveraged if they lack lower-body strength. To fit the mold as a classic 3-4 defensive end, Jones needs to pack on about 15 pounds of muscle.
The low sack totals are a point of concern, though when you watch game tape you can see opponents rolling away from Jones, leaving him unblocked to throw wide receiver screens to his side, and doing other things to stop Jones that don't involve actually stopping him. Jones is not a classic quick-twitch pass rusher who gets into the backfield at the snap.
Jones missed five games with a knee injury in 2011, though he returned to the field and played at a high level.
Conclusion: Jones projects as a 3-4 defensive end, but he could also be productive as a traditional 4-3 left end, where his ability to disengage from blocks would make him an asset as both a run and pass defender. He's the kind of defender that disrupts blocking schemes so others can record sacks, or hustles his way into clean up sacks when edge rushers flush the quarterback his way. Jones is easy to overlook because we clump elite defensive line prospects into super-quick rush ends and 300-pound monsters in the middle. Jones offers something very useful in between.
Pro Comparison: Jabaal Sheard, Cleveland Browns.
More Shutdown 50:
#37: Stephen Hill, WR, Georgia Tech | #38: Vinny Curry, DE, Marshall | #39: Doug Martin, RB, Boise State | #40 : Mohamed Sanu, WR, Rutgers | #41: Zach Brown, OLB, North Carolina | #42: Lavonte David, OLB, Nebraska | #43: Jared Crick, DE/DT, Nebraska | #44: Alshon Jeffrey, WR, South Carolina | #45: Kirk Cousins, QB, Michigan State| #46: Orson Charles, TE, Georgia| #47: Lamar Miller, RB, Miami| #48: Shea McClellin, OLB/DE, Boise State | #49: Rueben Randle, WR, LSU| #50: Jonathan Massaqoui, OLB/DE, Troy