Due to injuries and other factors, the impact of the 2021 Rams rookie draft class has been relatively modest. Ernest Jones has had the biggest role even though he's technically started less than half of the games played. The Rams picked Jones near the end of the 3rd round, in the compensatory pick section, slot 103 overall. He was the 2nd player selected in the draft by the Rams, after Atwell. After not playing much early in the season, Jones became a starter after Kenny Young was traded to the Broncos. How has Jones been playing and how does he stack up against other LBs in the NFL?
In my opinion, Jones has been neither great nor poor. He's been in between, I'd call him "okay". He's not a liability who is making a bunch of mistakes, but he also doesn't make a ton of great plays that would make him look like a star in the making and a future defensive cornerstone for the Rams.
As for his strengths, I feel like Jones does a good job with his eyes sorting through play action fakes and figuring out whether it is a run or pass play. He doesn't get fooled by misdirection and go the wrong way. I also like how in short zone coverage, he can find receivers in his area and use his length to body them up or step in front of them to discourage the pass.
For his weaknesses, I think Jones is on the small side and doesn't have great play strength. As I mentioned in my draft profile on him, in a different era of NFL football, I think Jones would have been put at weakside outside linebacker. He would be too small to play at ILB, but as the game has evolved, it is more feasible to play smaller defenders in the middle. Still, even in 2021, there are situations where it helps to have more muscle and size.
While Jones is pretty good in zone when he can face the QB, read and react in a small space, he has pass coverage limitations when he's required to turn and run. For example, on the controversial no call against Seattle, he is cleanly beaten by a RB out of the backfield. It is only due to the pass being so far underthrown that the play doesn't result in a big gain. Similar thing happened on Floyd's interception against Arizona. On that play, Jones doesn't anticipate or quickly react to Ertz running across the field. He doesn't have enough speed and burst to recover and make up ground. Consequently, the TE is wide open and this should have resulted in an easy 1st down. The QB doesn't make a good throw and Floyd's athleticism creates the interception.
Against the run, sometimes Jones lacks either quickness or power. Against Arizona, Rondale Moore in Wildcat formation fakes a jet sweep to Kyler Murray, then runs towards the right behind pulling blockers. A tight end climbs up towards Jones at the 2nd level. Jones does a great job seeing that Moore still has the ball and understands that he needs to get over the top of the TE block and flow in the direction of the play. Jones uses his hands to swipe down and defeat the TE's block attempt, then he uses his inside hand to seal and prevent the TE from recovering. Jones is free and in a great position to tackle the runner. Jones has 2 defenders (Fuller and Long) outside of him, an OLB (Floyd) setting the edge and Rapp from a deep lying safety position in support. After missing the block on Jones, the TE intelligently turns around and blocks Rapp instead.
Jones has a shot at stuffing Moore at the LOS, but instead Moore cuts inside and squirts by him. Yes, Moore is a very quick player and this isn't the easiest tackle to make. I believe, however, that this play shows limitations with lateral change of direction by Jones. Ideally, on a run like this, you don't want the LB to get beaten to the inside. If the LB can even just string the play out wide and force the play to go towards the sideline and either Fuller or Long, the defense has a better chance at stopping the runner. By allowing Moore to burst through the middle, Jones opens up the possibility for a huge run. Luckily for the Rams, A'Shawn Robinson is barely able to get off his block and recover in time to grab the runner from behind, limiting it to a 6 yard gain. I don't know how to grade this play the way PFF does, because on one hand he does a great job beating the TE's block, but on the other hand, he isn't able to tackle the runner and nearly gets gashed for a big run. To me, this is just a small example of some of the very subjective decisions PFF has to make that introduces an arbitrary element to their grading system. Same thing with missed tackle stats. Is this a missed tackle or not? I can see how someone might list it as a missed tackle, but on the other hand, you could argue that Jones is in the proper gap and the reason there is so much space inside of him is ARob got delayed on the block and consequently wasn't able to slide over to squeeze the opening, so really it was the DT not doing better who caused the space to be so wide, which made it tough for the LB to make the play.
Change of direction issues also rob Jones of effective play strength on certain plays where he has to trigger forward. Inside the 10 yard line, James Conner in Wildcat formation follows his blockers and looks for a hole. Jones does a solid job reading the play and finding the RB, but he doesn't strike the RB with enough stopping power. The RB hits him at the 5 yard line and drives him backwards into the end zone for a TD.
Same issue can prevent a LB from closing holes near the LOS. On a 2nd and 3 run by Seattle, they call an inside zone run play and pull the TE. Jones does a nice job reading the cutback and seeing where the RB is going. He can't get to the lane in time, however, to stuff the run. He gets a piece of the RB and at least helps to make the tackle, but can't prevent the first down. Maybe he got credit for an assisted tackle, but the difference between being just "okay" and being an elite player is having the LB hit the RB with enough stopping power that you can stuff that run closer to the LOS and make it 3rd down.
A LB sometimes can't make the tackle himself, but needs to set the edge or squeeze run lanes. Seattle calls an outside zone run. Gerald Everett, the TE, climbs towards Jones. Initially, Jones backpedals, anticipating a possible play action pass, but does a nice job seeing that it is a run and not a pass, and starts to move forward. Inside, Greg Gaines does a great job shedding the center and getting by the block on the inside, freeing himself to pursue the RB. Aaron Donald slams into the left guard, creating penetration. As we all know, GE isn't exactly a great blocking TE, so this is a battle you'd hope Jones would win more often than not. It appears to me that GE grabs the outside arm of Jones and subtly pulls Jones towards him, trying to prevent Jones from disengaging. Maybe this could have been called holding, but no flag was given. Instead, the refs call the LG for holding Donald, wiping out a nice gain for the Hawks. No harm in the end for the Rams, but this could have been a problem without the penalty, because Jones was unable to maintain leverage and contain the edge. If Jones had taken on GE's block better and controlled the outside, preventing the RB from cutting out wide, it would have helped Gaines try to make the tackle.
The PFF grade for Jones is fairly consistent with what I see on tape. He's in the middle of the pack, with neither a great grade nor a terrible one. Jones has a 57.3 PFF grade, ranking 32nd out of 82 linebackers. I don't think a PFF grade in the 50's is anything to get overly excited about (his grade is lower than Brian Allen's 2019 grade playing at center), but especially for a rookie player, it is a solid start. Since there are 32 teams, if you rank as one of the top 32 LBs, I think that's pretty solid, nothing to complain about there. How does Jones compare to other notable LBs?
Nick Bolton 65.2, 18th out of 82. The Rams could have drafted Bolton instead of Atwell. The numbers are potentially misleading, because prior to the last game, Jones was ranked ahead of Bolton. Bolton saw his grade make a considerable jump up from 57.7 to 65 in one week and went from being the 32nd ranked LB to 18th.
Jamin Davis 39.5, 69th out of 82. A middle of the 1st round pick, I don't know if his grade should be a huge surprise, because Davis is a boom or bust type prospect with elite athleticism, but with raw technique and little experience. Too soon to tell whether Davis was a bad pick or whether this was just a learning year to help him breakout down the road.
Baron Browning 56.4, 34th out of 82. The Rams could have drafted Browning, who was taken 2 slots after Jones. Browning was not supposed to play ILB for the Broncos this year, but they suffered injuries to both Alexander Johnson (81.1 PFF, 3rd out of 82) and Josey Jewell (83.5 PFF), pressing Browning into action. Overall, PFF grades Jones and Browning as being almost exactly the same. Kenny Young has a 50.6 grade, ranking 48th out of 82. The Broncos also have another former Ram, Micah Kiser.
Derrick Barnes 30.9, 80th out of 82. An early 4th round pick, I would have drafted Barnes earlier than Jones. Barnes had a key 2 point conversion stuff for the Lions in their first victory on the season, but otherwise has struggled to earn playing time and grades as one of the worst LBs in the league.
Jabril Cox 73.3. Cox hardly played any defensive snaps before tearing his ACL and being lost for the season.
Roquan Smith 50.7, 47th out of 82. PFF grades sometimes are very strange and surprising. I can't tell if they are illuminating and give great insight into what is really happening on the field or if they sometimes just confuse the issue and lead to erroneous assumptions. Smith is 4th in the NFL in tackles. His head coach praised him, saying that this was probably the best seasons of his career. A former top 10 pick in the 1st round, there has been considerable debate in the media about whether Smith was snubbed for the Pro Bowl and deserved to be selected. I haven't studied Bears games, so I have no clue whether PFF is right in ranking him as an average to slightly below average performer this year or whether PFF is crazy having his grade this low.
Devin White 36.3, 75th out of 82. There are multiple other big name LBs we could put in the same "PFF twilight zone" category as Roquan Smith. White is in the top 10 in tackles in the NFL. He's a former top 5 draft pick. PFF has never given him a good grade in any season in his career and if we took PFF literally, Devin White supposedly is one of the worst qualifying LBs in the NFL, a player who is so bad that he shouldn't even be a starter for any team in the NFL (if we assume that each team should have 2 starting LBs, the cutoff would be ranking 64th or better). Is Devin White really that bad? Maybe, I don't know. Haven't studied him either. Just asking, because it would be a very surprising conclusion. Other well known or highly drafted LBs who have disappointing PFF grades include Devin Bush, Kenneth Murray, Isaiah Simmons, Tremaine Edmunds, Leighton Vander Esch, Deion Jones and CJ Mosley.
Myles Jack 39.0, 72nd out of 82. This one is more believable to me. Before the Jags played the Rams, I watched some of their plays against the Falcons and the Jags were terrible defending the run. So incredibly soft in the middle. Jack has had back and knee injuries this season. I don't know if the injuries are the entire reason he hasn't played well this year, but something isn't right with him.
Dont'a Hightower 57.4, 31st out of 82. Per PFF, Jones is virtually the same as veteran Pats LB, Hightower. The return of Hightower, who was one of several Pats who opted out in 2020, has been a plus for the Pats in 2021, though whether Hightower is still a great player maybe is up for debate, because he has some alarmingly poor stats when it comes to missed tackles and pass coverage this year.
Cory Littleton 47.1, 56th out of 82. With the Rams in 2018 and 2019, Littleton had 7.5 sacks, 22 passes defended and 11 combined INTs, FF and FR. With the Raiders, Littleton has had 0.5 sacks, 4 PDs and 1 combined INT/FF/FR. Some people might call this a "regression" and if you believe PFF grades, that is what happened. On the other hand, other metrics suggest that 2021 and 2018 for Littleton really aren't very different from each other, so maybe the root of the problem is with how PFF does their grading.
Jordyn Brooks 54.2, 38th out of 82. Brooks is 3rd in the NFL in tackles. His teammate, Bobby Wagner is 1st. Since the Hawks are currently 5-9, this is an example of how high tackle stats for individual defenders aren't always a great thing. Bobby Wagner is a good player. Is Brooks good? I don't know, but if we believe PFF, he's not quite as good as Ernest Jones.
Bobby Okereke 57.9, 30th out of 82. This is an interesting player to compare to Jones, because Okereke was a 3rd round pick in 2019 by the Colts. Okereke had a 78.4 PFF grade as a rookie in 2019, making him the highest graded rookie LB in that draft class and the 16th best LB in the NFL that season. Former Colts punter, Pat McAfee, made one of the most epic draft pick announcements in draft broadcast history when he announced the selection of Okereke in 2019, trolling Titans fans in Nashville and poking fun at himself. A couple years from now, when we have a bigger body of work to compare, we could see how Jones performs in relation to Okereke. Right now, per PFF, they are almost exactly the same.
Will Jones prove in the long run to be a good draft pick?
How would you grade Jones as a Rams draft pick so far?
When you factor in age, salary, durability, etc., how many LBs on other teams would you swap for Jones straight up if given the option? Are there any LBs around the NFL that you think are vastly overrated or underrated?
One example of a player I didn't know much about before is Matt Milano of the Bills. He was a 5th round pick in 2017. When the Bills signed him to a new contract, paying him over $10 mill per season, PFF said this was a bad deal and that Milano wasn't worth the money. I wonder if PFF has changed their mind, because this season they grade Milano as the 13th best LB. He slots in just behind Fred Warner of the Niners, so for at least one year it doesn't look like it was money poorly spent. Warner's contract has a salary of over $19 million. So, if we took their PFF grades literally, Milano would be a substantial bargain compared to Warner.
For a measuring stick to use to compare to Jones, I'll offer the career of Josey Jewell of the Broncos. I wasn't a huge fan of Jewell in the 2018 draft. That year, Todd McShay had the Rams taking Jewell in the 3rd round at pick 87. Some Rams fans really liked him as a prospect. I can't remember exactly how I had him graded, maybe more in the 5th round area. Jewell was taken early in the 4th round, pick 106, 5 slots before Brian Allen.
As a rookie, Jewell made 9 starts, had 58 tackles and earned a 61.7 PFF grade. Overall, very similar to the 2021 numbers for Jones. His 2nd season, Jewell lost his starting role and saw his playing time sharply decline. Jewell was considered to be a strong run defender, but not good against the pass.
Jewell rebounded his 3rd year and started the whole year, making 113 tackles and posting a 68.1 PFF grade. Due to his injury this year, I wonder if the Broncos will bring him back or if his time with them is over. If he leaves as a FA, maybe he could even be a player the Rams could kick the tires on as a low cost vet.
Even though he didn't become a Pro Bowler during his rookie deal, since Jewell started more than one and a half seasons and was a decent player, I'd characterize him as a better than average result for a 4th round draft pick. I surveyed the careers for the final 16 third round picks in 2018, as well as the first 5 fourth round picks (these were the 21 players taken immediately before Jewell in 2018). Out of those 21 players, only 5 (24%) started enough games during their rookie contracts to be considered starters. I'd only consider a couple of the players to be "good" starters (Mark Andrews would be the best). Some of the other starters might as well have been backups, because they are only mediocre performers.
While Jones was a 3rd round pick, notice that his overall draft slot (103) is almost the same as Jewell's slot at pick 106. If Jones is at least as productive as Jewell was during his 4 years with the Broncos, I'd probably give about a "B" grade for the pick. If Jewell hadn't gotten injured, maybe 2021 could have been his breakout season and he would have outperformed his draft slot. Instead, his NFL future is cloudy and uncertain. Jones is off to a solid start to his pro career. Can he continue to progress and develop?