The 49ers roster is a little lopsided heading into the 2017 season. They’re incredibly strong at certain position groups, and frighteningly weak in others. But that’s the nature of this project, and this clearly being a multi-year rebuild. One of the position groups that received attention this offseason was the defensive line.
Most notably, general manager John Lynch signed Earl Mitchell, drafted Solomon Thomas, and added Elvis Dumveril.
But one name that has gone under the radar for the most part is sixth-round pick D.J. Jones, a 321-pound nose guard out of Ole Miss. The rookie, who had 70 tackles and six sacks over his final two NCAA seasons, has strung together a solid showing in OTAs, minicamp and training camp, enough where he is already in the discussion as a top rotational player alongside Mitchell and Quinton Dial.
“Just playing nose guard right now,” Jones said of his fit on the defensive line. “I can play 3-technique, I learned that position. I feel good at the nose guard, it’s what I played my entire life, so having an opportunity to just learn from guys like Earl (Mitchell), I think I’m sharpening my skill set.”
For a big body inside, Jones is kind of a freak.
He can clog the middle, anchor, run down backs sideline to sideline and beat O-lineman with quickness. When asked about his size and the rare athleticism that goes with it, Jones confirmed he could bench press around 445lbs and also dunk a basketball. “I feel like I have a bunch of tools in my tool box, but (athleticism) is one I could pull out and use against an offensive lineman that would surprise him.”
But talent could be lost transitioning from college to the pros if it is not groomed. Jones, fortunately, is taking advantage of his resources.
“Every day I talk to Q (Dial), I talk to Earl—just be coachable. That’s the main one, just be coachable,” he said. “Hear what everybody has to say, even if a rookie is speaking to you. Just listen, you never know what you can get out of what they say.”
Mitchell, in particular, has been a mentor for Jones.
“Technique, I’m all about technique," Jones said. "Talking to Earl, as you can see he’s a monster, so I just stay in his head and try to get every little thing he does so I can perfect that position.
“[Mitchell] is the perfect picture to look at. Everything he does, he tries to perfect it—because nobody is perfect, but he tries. For me to be behind him is great. A guy like that that wants to teach me his role, his ways and what he’s had to do to get to where he is. I’m trying to model my game after his.”
Jones shared that the first thing he learned from Mitchell is how to diagnose the play and ultimately be faster to the ball.
“Key the tip of the pad. Key the tip of the pad,” Jones said. “He can’t go anywhere without his pads, so if you watch his pads, he goes that way, you go that way. So just keeping my eyes on the tip of that pad.”
Offensive players are also helping Jones pick up the NFL game.
“The speed,” Jones said about what he’s needed to adjust to at the NFL level. “I did come from the SEC, but having the opportunity to go against guys like (Daniel) Kilgore; just his speed, he has different boot, he’s faster and stronger down the line than anybody else.”
Jones is clearly soaking up all he can, which is encouraging given that he is a mid-round developmental talent - and one with a fair amount of upside. And he's shown a capacity for learning.
After high school, Jones went to East Mississippi Community College, more widely known as 'Last Chance U.' It was there he ranked as the nation's No. 3 junior college prospect, per ESPN, before transferring to Ole Miss for the 2015 season. In 2016, Jones took another step, and received the Jeff Hamm Memorial Award as the Rebels’ most improved defensive player.
As this trajectory continues, Jones will be a player to watch for the 49ers in preseason, and perhaps once the regular season starts. As a rare physical specimen from a power conference embedded within a very deep and talented position group, he has a chance to make serious contributions and develop faster than expected.
Media courtesy Sports Illustrated