Following a 24-22 loss to the Cowboys during the Wild Card round back in January, coach Pete Carroll believes the Seahawks have the foundation in place to contend for championships in 2019 and beyond.
As one of the central reasons supporting Carroll’s optimism about the franchise’s future prospects, Seattle has unearthed several key players during the 2017 and 2018 drafts, including running back Chris Carson, receiver David Moore, and cornerback Tre Flowers among others.
“There’s two solid years of young guys that are right in the middle of the start of their career, and they’re with us and they’re good dudes and they work hard and they care and all that.” Carroll told reporters during his final press conference. “I can’t talk anymore positive about how we see the future. Those guys are the reason. They are the future.”
Carroll spoke at length about the “special qualities” exhibited by last year’s rookie class, but he also made sure to discuss the importance of Seattle’s 2017 draft crop moving into 2019 and beyond. While he referenced Carson, Moore, and the safety duo of Delano Hill and Tedric Thompson, he also name-dropped former third-round pick Nazair Jones, providing some unexpected insight on where he’ll fit down the line.
“Naz [Jones] has been moved to five-technique. We’re excited about that. We did that in the middle of the year to see him contribute out there.”
Unlike several of his fellow 2017 classmates, Jones failed to make much of an impact in his second NFL campaign, finishing with only seven tackles and two quarterback hits. Following a strong rookie season, he appeared in just nine games and saw his total snap count drop from 284 snaps in 2017 to 132 in 2018, a 53 percent decrease.
Though healthy and eager to play, Jones initially lost reps behind newly-signed veterans Shamar Stephen and Tom Johnson during the early stages of training camp. The arrival of undrafted rookie Poona Ford as well as the versatility of 292-pound defensive end Quinton Jefferson caused him to plunge even further down the depth chart, leading Seattle to deactivate him as a healthy scratch seven times.
With so many bodies in front of him, the Seahawks shuffled lineups according to opponent on a weekly basis, leaving Jones as the odd man out to watch in street clothes on the sideline far more than he would’ve liked.
But if there’s a silver lining following such a perplexing season, Carroll’s comments indicated the Seahawks still hope Jones will be able to carve out a major role in the future, albeit at a different position.
During his first two NFL seasons, Jones has primarily played 3-tech defensive tackle in Seattle’s defensive line rotation, occasionally reducing down to nose tackle. But as Carroll alluded to, the team began transitioning the 6-foot-5, 292-pound lineman to defensive end midway through the season.
Now, the question remains: will added versatility help Jones remain on the 53-man roster next season? Or will he become an odd man out?
As a rookie, Jones flashed many of the skills Seattle looks for from their 5-tech defensive ends. He offers the size to take on double teams and stop the run as a two-gap defender while also being a surprisingly effective pass rusher. In 11 games in 2017, he recorded 2.0 sacks and four quarterback hits, providing an unexpected interior rushing presence with somewhat limited snaps.
However, even with those skills potentially allowing him to find success at his new position, Jones could face a tall task trying to cement a rotational role due to additions made by the Seahawks this offseason.
Quinton Jefferson, who started 12 games at defensive end last season, signed his original round tender as an unrestricted free agent to return for the 2019 season. The Seahawks then turned around and used their first-round selection on TCU defensive end L.J. Collier, who will be expected to play significant snaps right away.
With Jefferson back in the fold, Collier drawing comparisons to former Pro Bowler Michael Bennett, and Rasheem Green hoping to make a major jump in his second season, the Seahawks suddenly have plenty of big-bodied, athletic defenders who can handle 5-tech duties off the edge.
In addition, veteran Branden Jackson will be back to compete and recently signed free agent Ezekiel Ansah has the size to play both defensive end spots in a pinch, minimizing Jones's odds of finding playing time there.
When it's all said and done, the best opportunity for Jones to resurface as a viable contributor may come to fruition by sliding him back to defensive tackle. Behind expected starters Jarran Reed and Poona Ford, Seattle doesn't have great depth in the interior and lost former starter Shamar Stephen in free agency back in March.
Even after drafting Demarcus Christmas and signing 340-pound space eater Al Woods a few weeks ago, Jones could be the third-most talented player at the position for the Seahawks. If he can rediscover his rookie form and play to his potential, there's no reason he can't break into the rotation there.
The bottom line? Seattle transitioned Jones to defensive end hoping added versatility would bolster his chances of being an impact player next year, but the snaps simply won't be available there.
If he's going to turn things around, it's likely going to have to be at his original position, or he'll be looking for a new team in September.