The Shortest Yard
My NFL comp for Rams 3rd round draft pick, Ernest Jones, the South Carolina linebacker, is a player Rams fans know very well. It is Roman Phifer, who was drafted by the Rams in the 2nd round in 1991 (in today's draft, he would have been a 1st round pick, because he was 31st overall.) Phifer played many seasons for the Rams in the 1990's. He finished his career with the Jets and the Patriots, winning 3 Super Bowls with the Evil Empire. When the Pats upset the GSOT Rams, one of the pivotal plays involved Phifer knocking the ball out of Kurt Warner's hand at the one yard line, but the 99 yard scoop and score by the Pats didn't count due to a defensive holding penalty. Phifer is currently a scout for the Detroit Lions.
In a different era of NFL football, I think Jones would be a better prospect. The game has evolved so much in the 30 years since 1991. Roman Phifer was taken 4 slots after a fullback. Chris Gardocki, a punter, was taken 78th overall, which is 25 picks earlier than Jones was picked this year. One of the best linebackers from that draft was Bryan Cox, who ran 5.00 seconds in the 40. The great tight end, Ben Coates, ran 4.95 seconds. Ricky Watters, a top RB, ran 4.71 seconds. Keenan McCardell and Ed McCaffrey, both great WRs, ran 4.56 and 4.69 seconds, respectively.
Phifer ran the 40 in 4.71 seconds, the same time as Watters. In today's game, can you imagine Phifer trying to cover Travis Etienne with his 4.40 second speed?
The good news is that some of the same changes in the game work in favor of Jones. Phifer never played as a 3-4 inside linebacker until the very end of his pro career. For the most part, he was a 4-3 outside linebacker. In those days, to play inside in a 3-4 scheme, you needed big, stout LBs to take on huge guards and powerful fullbacks. Phifer was undersized for that role. Today, this isn't as much of an issue.
Phifer didn't win a ring with the Rams, but maybe Ernest Jones can win a Super Bowl with the Rams and make his own impact play at the one yard line in the big game, a la Mike Jones.
6'1 1/2'' tall, 230 pounds, 33 3/8'' arms, 80 1/8'' wingspan, 10 3/8'' hands.
Phifer: 6'2'' tall, 227 pounds, 33 1/2'' arms, 8 3/4'' hands.
Jones: 4.69 or 4.72 sec (40 time), 1.63 sec (10 yard split), 38.5'' vert, 10'6'' broad, 19 bench reps, 4.38 sec (shuttle), 7.49 sec (3 cone)
Phifer: 4.71 sec (40 time), 1.70 sec (split), 36.5'' vert, 10' broad, 19 bench reps, 4.31 sec (shuttle)
Micah Kiser is a similar height and weight, but he has shorter arms (32'') and a smaller wingspan (75 3/4''). Kiser has a virtually identical 10 yard split and 40 time, slightly worse jumping, slightly better in the shuttle. One notable testing difference is Kiser has a considerably better 3 cone time (7.05 sec), which I feel is a reflection of an important athletic limitation with Jones, who has below average change of direction ability.
From a small town in southeast Georgia called Waycross. Burt Reynolds was officially born in Michigan, but for many years he claimed he was from Waycross. One of the actors in "The Longest Yard", the football movie starring Reynolds, was Pervis Atkins, a former Ram who played with Roman Gabriel in the early 1960's. Nikki DeLoach, an actress who is a big Todd Gurley fan, is from Waycross. Titles of shows she's been on that could be used to describe the Rams draft brain trust are "Mad Men", "Misery Loves Company" and "The Mickey Mouse Club".
3 star recruit. True Junior. Public health major. Turns 22 years old in November.
Enrolled early, but missed spring 2018 practices when it was discovered he had a back fracture. Saw limited action that season, playing in games late in the season, including burning his redshirt year by playing in the bowl game.
2019 (12 starts) 97 tackles, 5.5 TFLs, one sack, one FF, 7 PDs, 2 INTs
One INT was on a zone blitz where he drops and the QB throws the ball to him. The second INT was on a 3rd down play where the QB rolls out of the pocket. He's supposed to cover the RB. The RB gets behind him and Jones could have been beaten with a better throw, but the pass is underthrown and Jones does a good job using his length to reach up and make the pick.
2020 (9 starts, but effectively only 8 games, because he got injured early in one of the contests) 86 tackles, 5 TFLs, one sack, one FF, zero PDs, zero INTs.
Had appendectomy in 2020 and missed practices in fall camp. Injured his ankle late in the 2020 season and missed the final game. In one of the games I watched, he appeared to injury his hand or wrist.
Played MLB in a 4-3 scheme. Javon Kinlaw was one of the DTs in front of him in 2019. Jaycee Horn, the star CB also was on the team. While normally in the box, occasionally Jones was aligned outside of the offensive tackle. One of 4 team captains in 2020.
Jones didn't make many tackles for losses. He only had 0.525 TFLs per game. If you go back and look at the list I made in the post on Garret Wallow, Jones would have been very low, ranking just ahead of Paddy Fisher, who was an UDFA. Jones also had a low TFL rate, with only 5.7% of his tackles going for TFLs. This is one of the lowest rates of the LBs I looked at in this draft.
I find this concerning. On tape, Jones was not a disruptive force who was frequently in the opponent's backfield. In the games I watched, I even counted multiple TFLs that were "cheap ones" where he didn't create them himself, they were more "right place at the right time" tackles where a different defender caused the problem and the ball carrier just happened to run into Jones at the end.
Part of the reason Jones had a high tackle total was he played on a bad team. South Carolina gave up nearly 400 yards of offense per game to opponents in 2019. In 2020, they ranked 105th out of 128 schools in scoring defense and surrendered over 450 yards per game. It isn't very impressive to me when a LB makes a bunch of tackles way down the field as the opponent keeps moving the ball and scores touchdown after touchdown. Sometimes, the better LB is the one who has fewer tackles, because it means the opponent is punting instead of scoring.
Graded out 211th out of 533 LBs per PFF with a 67.5 grade last season.
ESPN 127th overall (4th round)
CBSSports 286th (UDFA)
Daniel Jeremiah 99th (almost exactly where the Rams got him at 103. Rams said they would have taken Jones at 88. In the draft broadcast, DJ praised Jones for his stopping power.)
PFF 169th (5th round)
TDN 194th (6th round)
Drafttek 409th (UDFA)
Tony Pauline 139th (late 4th round)
Bleacher Report 251st (late 7th round)
Sports Illustrated 6th round
Lance Zierlein 5.99 grade. Compared to Micah Kiser. LZ gave Kiser a higher draft grade, 6.10, and a 4th round projection in his draft (the Rams drafted Kiser in the 5th round.) Other LBs graded similarly by LZ include Isaiah McDuffie, 6.00, the Boston College player we thought the Rams wanted as a special teams player, who was a late 6th round pick, Monty Rice (5.94, late 3rd round), KJ Britt (5.94, late 5th round), and Derrick Barnes (5.82, early 4th round).
Similar LBs in previous drafts include Markus Bailey (5.99, 7th round), Jacob Phillips (5.98, 3rd round), Cam Brown (5.97, 6th round), Jahlani Tavai (5.90, 2nd round), Bobby Okereke (5.90, 3rd round), Oren Burks (5.90, 3rd round) and Christian Sam (5.90, 6th round).
LZ says he has good football IQ, reads keys and wrap up tackles. Below average athlete. Labored change of direction on passing plays.
Tony Pauline says he stands out as a run defender, flows well laterally, is feisty and can use his hands. Not smooth dropping into coverage, hesitant when the ball is in the air, one dimensional as a run defender. Projects as a 4-3 WILL linebacker.
Sports Illustrated says Jones is underappreciated by the media as a prospect, has a knack for being around the football, ultra productive, consistent, outstanding eyes, works through trash, slippery player, keen spatial awareness, smooth mover. Middling size, lacks power to stack and shed, can get blown out of gaps, little ability to work off of run blocks, very ordinary in straight line, not explosive, lacks traits to make plays in pursuit.
Long arms and big wingspan. Cory Littleton has 33 3/8'' arms and a 79 7/8'' wingspan, so Jones has nearly identical length compared to Littleton. In zone coverage, used long arms to reach out in front of WR and deflect pass. Used long arms to redirect Kyle Pitts on shallow crossing route. If he could clean up his technique and develop better anticipation and aggression, flashes potential to be able to stack and shed blockers due to his length. He has physical tools that he doesn't fully utilize.
Length helps save him in some situations. RB beats him in coverage, putting the LB behind and grasping (which is potential holding penalty) but the pass by the QB is a bit behind and LB is able to reach out and break up the pass.
Fundamentally sound tackler, wraps up. Can lay lumber on vulnerable WRs and QBs if given the opportunity to deliver shoulder charges, though I don't know if NFL refs are going to let you get away with those types of hits, they could lead to penalties.
Good play recognition and adjustments. Recognized shift by RB into backfield and made appropriate call in response. Read screen pass to RB well. Takes smart and conservative pursuit angles, not overestimating his own speed.
Near GL, stands up the RB at the one yard line and shoves him backwards, then tells the RB all about it.
Combative, passionate, emotional leader on the field.
Flashed surprising speed to carry vertical route on one play. WR ran 30 yards deep over the middle and LB was relatively close to him when WR caught the ball. When Jones sells out and opens it up running at max effort, he shows decent straight line speed. Ran pretty fast down sideline in front of CB after an INT. Ran down QB in race to edge. In desperation situations, can pursue with some speed from behind. Tries to slap down or rip ball out from behind in pursuit to try to cause a fumble.
Flashes playmaking ability. Unblocked on inside zone run, attacks downhill and penetrates through middle, stuffing the RB for a TFL. Nice stuff near the GL when not blocked. Moves to side and evades block by center, then tackles the RB. Attacked downhill and beat block by WR. Solid hit against move blocker TE. Kept clean, fires forward and stuffs the RB near the LOS. Sheds guard at second level and tackles RB. Shoots gap on run blitz and gets half a TFL. Stacks and sheds center. Sheds LT and tackles RB.
I thought he showed improvement in 2020 compared to 2019. Used his hands better, able to avoid some blocks, better pass rushing, just overall in a number of areas seemed to be a better player. Arrow could be pointing up and with some coaching there is potential for him to get better.
Jones had a better PFF grade last season than Pete Werner (a 2nd round pick, even though PFF graded him only 372nd among LBs last year), Dylan Moses, Derrick Barnes, Chazz Surratt, Cam McGrone, Garret Wallow and KJ Britt.
Praised for his leadership and football character. Describing himself as a freshman in 2018, Jones said "I'm not the fastest linebacker, but what I do make up for is with my intelligence. I'm able to put myself in the right position to be where I need to be."
In theory, has higher ceiling than Cory Littleton, because he has the same length as Littleton, runs just as fast (40, 10 yard split and shuttle times are virtually identical), jumped way better (Littleton only had a 29.5'' vert at the Combine, 9 inches shorter compared to Jones) and Jones is a better run defender with superior play strength. Littleton is more of a one dimensional player who is valued for his pass coverage ability. If Jones could develop into a more well rounded LB, he could become one of the better LBs in the league.
Jamin Davis was a 1st round pick. Jones doesn't have the elite athleticism of Davis, but has bigger hands and just as much length. Davis has 33'' arms and a 79 7/8'' wingspan, so Jones barely beats him in both measurements. In terms of intangibles and technique, Jones is more advanced than Davis and doesn't have as big a bust factor compared to Davis.
Limited athlete. Very clunky and slow in pedal trying to drop and get depth in zone pass coverage. When he tries to run fast, he has a tendency to lose his balance and fall down if he tries to change directions. Hips are too tight, struggles to change directions. Falls off of tackles, because he doesn't explode to the RB with enough force and tackling power. Did great job avoiding center and penetrating into backfield, but then slides off the RB, only able to grab the ankle, I bet he still got credit for partial TFL, because another defender helped clean it up and he still had a hand on the RB at the end. Legs can get chopped out from under hip, lacks agility to avoid cut block. Overruns plays when pursuing to the sideline, then tends to miss tackle and fall down when the runner cuts back inside. Even when he's unblocked in the hole, it feels as if he's running in molasses at times, there is no explosive moment to the RB. Stumbled, fell and whiffed on tackle in hole, another time barely made shoe string tackle to trip up RB in hole. Lacks size and bulk. Can get overpowered by pulling guards.
Transitions are slow, because he can't shift his body weight and change directions fluidly. TE runs 5 yards past the LOS, then turns around. The LB is leaning backwards and when he sees the TE stop, the momentary pause as he tries to get moving forward prevents him from closing the space or driving on the route. Different play, can't squeeze space as zone defender then on top of it LB misses the tackle after TE makes the catch.
Body is not consistently balanced or prepared to take on 2nd level blockers climbing to him. Too many times, the OL drives him way out of his gap, shoving him backwards or sideways and he has no functional strength or ability to do anything about it. Outside zone run, the center knocks him backwards. Should be able to use hands to beat combo, but somehow gets tangled up with guard, shoved backwards, unable to free himself until he's 7 yards off of the LOS, making it an easy run for the RB, because LB "isn't home" in the middle of the field. On critical 4th quarter drive, draw play up middle, LB runs into combo block in front of him and gets shoved to the ground by the guard. Retreats and gives up ground to try to get off of blocks instead of taking them on with power. Outside zone run, no plan against climbing LG, gets shoved backwards and RB runs through vacated gap for 10 yards. Works off of guard's block, but gets surprised by TE, who shoves him, sending him flying 3 yards backwards off balance and into the safety. Wide zone play, the RT on combo block gets helmet into chest of LB, drives him 4 yards backwards, preventing the LB from flowing laterally. LB caught off balance by climbing G, shoved 3 yards sideways. Got stacked and sealed by TE on solo block as backside defender. Got sealed off by TE on wide run, opening up lane for TD. Too upright against guard on wide zone and gets driven 4 yards sideways. G climbs to him, puts LB on skates and drives him 9 yards off of the LOS.
A movie about his pass coverage ability could be called "Lost in Space". Can't stay with RBs and TEs when they change directions or he leans the wrong way and has to resort to trying to grab them, which in the NFL can lead to illegal contact or defensive holding penalties. Medium 3rd down in zone coverage, he's trying to progress through route combination to go from the TE to the WR, then to the RB, which requires him in a small space to shift his weight from one direction to another and he struggles to do this, as if all the other players on the field are moving at a faster speed compared to him. Roasted by pivot routes and angle routes. Nearly gave up potentially devastating completion in final minute of tie game on Texas route by RB, but the QB misses the throw. Medium 3rd down, caught flatfooted by RB as he circles out of the backfield and easily put in trail position. Turned around 360 degrees trying to cover RB in the flat. RB runs right past him down the middle of the field, LB unable to get enough depth to keep up.
Plays slower than his timed speed in most situations. Short stepper when he flows to the sideline, not quick or fluid. No burst to get to RB even if he has open lane and he sees that the RB has the ball. Leaks yardage, because he doesn't have enough speed and explosion to close down the RB on a draw play. Open lane to RB, but not enough burst to get home, instead of a TFL or stuff, results in a 15 yard run.
There's a play against Georgia that illustrates how Jones doesn't play fast. Jake Fromm starts to scramble. Fromm ran 5.01 seconds in the 40. When the QB starts running, he's at his own 40 yard line. The LB is at the South Carolina 45 and he begins running parallel to the 45. Fromm runs out of bounds at the South Carolina 44 and at that point Jones is standing next to him at the 43. If you calculate the distances traveled, they are approximately the same. On this play, instead of running like he has 4.7 speed, Jones ran more like he had 4.9 or 5.0 flat speed.
Pass to RB in flat. I bet a LB with good speed would have limited this play to about a 10 to 15 yard gain. Jones can't cut off the angle and it results in a 35 yard gain. RB on angle route gets rub from TE and WR. Jones doesn't have any makeup speed to recover and whiffs at a diving tackle attempt, resulting in a big gain. Dump pass to RB in the flat near the LOS. The LB is 8 yards downfield. The RB runs forward 10 yards, then the LB misses the tackle when the RB cuts inside, requiring a different defender to help tackle the RB. A fast LB on this play would have had a chance to close down the RB and make the tackle to prevent the first down. Tries to run wide to stop RB on option pitch, but he's so slow, the RB stiff arms him and breaks the tackle, requiring a DB to come up and force the RB out of bounds. Wide zone run and LB has head start and good angle on the RB, but the RB still somehow beats him to the corner and the LB has to drag the RB down from behind.
Reacts, doesn't attack. Backs out at the last moment, like a horse at an equestrian competition that gets spooked and doesn't want to jump over the fence. Short 3rd down, he attacks the LOS, but suddenly slows down and the guard jacks him backwards, then locks him up as the RB runs for a first down. Charges forward on short 4th down, but too timid as the fullback knocks him sideways. "Peekaboo" attitude against pullers, trying to dance to side of them instead of attacking and blowing up the blocker. The RB escapes or the blocker will push Jones backwards or he voluntarily retreats and gives up space as he plays patty cake with the pulling TE. Running play near GL, he sits backs and reacts instead of gambling and trying to disrupt it in backfield. Short 3rd down, doesn't attack climber, allows guard to catch him off balance and push him backwards. Seemed to be in good position against counter play, but allows the TE to shove him 5 yards backwards. Thinks RPO is a pass play and takes 3 steps diagonally back towards the WR, is out of position when RB runs up the middle and doesn't have enough speed to recover.
Lacks "spatial anticipation". Runs into combo blocks he easily could avoid. Gets caught unprepared for blocks by climbers coming from a 45 degree angle to him. Runs into congestion as he flows laterally, not seeing traffic jam developing. Short 3rd down, doesn't feel block by the tackle coming from his side.
Poor decisions on how to take on certain blocks. Multiple times, he reads a counter play and tries to pursue from the other side, but is faced with a climber in his way. Each time, he tries to go under the block and every time he did this he ends up out of position and late to get to the hole and can't stop the RB from picking up a nice gain. Wide zone run, the LB is "treading water" taking 3 wasted hop steps, not covering any ground laterally, allowing the guard to seal him off, opening up a gaping lane and a gigantic run by the RB. Too focused on pulling blockers, loses edge containment.
Below average instincts as zone defender for how to move to squeeze passing windows. When there is a route behind him and he's trying to read the QB, he'll often step at the wrong angle (e.g. he'll move backwards when he should go inside, or he'll step to the outside when he should get more depth). Contributed to completion on 4th down play, contributed to huge pass play to WR on slant. Lacks instincts even reacting to routes in front of him, stepping in wrong direction instead of moving towards the intended receiver. Not enough athleticism and instincts to drop under short slant route. You can make up for a lack of speed by being a smart defender (e.g. Zach Thomas of the Dolphins) but if you are both a limited athlete and you don't have a sense of how to properly move in zone coverage, that is a bad combination. Jones could be better in zone if he could learn where to go, because he has long arms, but right now he doesn't have a great feel for how to defend the pass.
Not much juice as pass rusher, whether off the edge against tackles or matched up solo on RBs.
I bet Daniel Jeremiah only watched highlights, because Jones doesn't really have great stopping power. He only stones RBs when he is perfectly lined up with them. The problem is Jones has poor small area athleticism and struggles to get his body into a position where he can uncoil into the runner and deliver a strong hit. As a result, he ends up with a leaky tackle. Short yardage run, LB is in search and destroy mode, sorts his way around congestion and finds the RB, tries to square him up, wraps both arms around the RB. The second effort by the RB, however, drags the LB and picks up the first down. 3rd&5, is one on one against QB in space. The QB tries to juke outside, then cut inside, but LB appears to be in solid position, hits the QB at the LOS and wraps his arms around him. Since the LB is slow to shift his weight in response to the juke, he can only "catch" the QB instead of engaging his lower body and driving into the QB. The QB twists and turns and with his back to the marker, drags the LB 5 yards, picking up the first down. This is the very antithesis of stopping power.
Motor isn't hot. Either his stamina isn't good enough and he needs to get in better shape or the level of hustle isn't there (my guess is he just gets tired.) Doesn't play to the whistle and follow up on plays. He relaxes or just jogs, then gets surprised when the runner breaks tackle attempt by another defender. Late to arrive to help clean up tackles.
Roman Phifer (2nd round 1991, Rams, UCLA)
I would not have drafted Ernest Jones before the late rounds. I think Derrick Barnes, who was pick 113 by Detroit, was a better prospect. I thought Kiser was a better prospect (which is how Zierlein had them graded) and Kiser was a 5th round pick. Why did Snead draft Jones so early?
CBSSports ranked all of the NFL teams in terms of how their drafts compared to their board and the Rams were in last place, ranked 32nd. So, this is more than just normal post draft Monday morning quarterbacking by disgruntled fans. There is an objective basis from which to conclude that the Rams reached with their selections. Do Snead and McVay see something in these players that most experts don't see?
I never thought Cory Littleton was ever going to be more than a backup and special teams player. Maybe Raheem Morris and linebackers coach Chris Shula can turn Jones into a good starter and surprise us.