While he’s already a sizable blip on the radar of a lot of 49ers followers, it’s fair to say nose tackle D.J. Jones is not yet a household name in the NFL or even one of the familiars in San Francisco. In a role where he was playing 43% of defensive snaps per game, he hasn’t had the year to really put himself on the map nationally.
But now Jones enters a seminal fourth year, and DeForest Buckner is out. “Buck was thee guy,” Jones told the media this week. “If you wanted to know how to do something, watch Buck.”
Prior to Jones’ season-ending injury in December 2019, there were shades of the 49ers’ next valuable defensive contributor. Consistent gap discipline, run stops, hustle, and big plays in big moments (2 sacks, 2 QB hits, 4 TFL, FF), belonging alongside the likes of the veteran Pro Bowler Buckner and No. 2 overall pick Nick Bosa.
The upward-pointing arrow on Jones makes sense, too. That's the story of his career, from JUCO to Ole Miss to becoming a good rookie in San Francisco, where he’s improved each season. And athletically, he’s a gifted player when you look at his size (6-0, 305) and movement ability. These are the clips we always pander over around the draft, and forget once a player is into his career, but this is the kind of guy he is.
This natural athleticism and hand-eye show up as areas of strength in Jones' game.
Above all else, the lower-leg explosion from that clip appears in Jones’ get-off. He’s often the first 49ers DL off the ball and given who he’s competing with, that’s saying something. The get-off has been arguably Jones' greatest strength and differentiator as an interior tackle, and you'll see it work for him in these 2019 plays against Green Bay, Pittsburgh, and Seattle.
This quick evasive swim against the Packers leading to a TFL was something else — the OL did not have time to blink, much less get hands on him.
Against the Steelers, he's so quick off the line, he jolts two-time first-team All-Pro Maurkice Pouncey into the backfield and running back James Connor trips over his legs for no gain.
That same burst worked to Jones' advantage against Seattle. He got an excellent jump and delivered so much pop in that initial punch against the Seahawks center, #53 got rocked back and Jones gave himself a clear path to Russell Wilson.
This is his footwork, hands, and timing with the snap all working in confluence. He's been able to get in zones doing this, and if the frequency down-to-down, game-to-game picks up, he could be a lethal weapon in the middle.
His athleticism extends beyond the get-off, too. He remains quick after he gets going, as seen with his closing speed on this sack against Carolina.
Or chasing down Arizona speedster Kenyan Drake outside the numbers 11 yards downfield.
What’s more, though, on a roster laden with young stars and overachievers, Jones is looking like one of San Francisco’s most promising in terms of technique. It’s why there’s reason to believe he’ll continue having success and the 49ers could have something more. He's a very coordinated big man that demonstrates a lot of body control with how he angles himself and walls off lanes, and anchors with a low center of gravity.
His fast, precise hands don't just translate to defeating blocks, but attacking the football. Most recall the NFL Game of the Year between the 49ers and Saints, but many forget Jones had his fingerprints on that one, too.
That hand-eye we discussed was apparent when Jones sniped this punch on the ball in a big game in New Orleans:
His consistent contributions against the run have been valuable.
One example of Jones putting it all together was this display against Carolina, as he reads the play, wins physically by shedding the guard, and sidesteps into the A gap to make the stop for no gain.
When he carries this into clutch moments, including the red zone, it further validates not just his wiring but his technical prowess. He knows what needs to be done when, how to do it, and he is capable of executing.
He was a presence on a momentous goal-line stand in Los Angeles, where the Rams ran into the teeth of the 49ers defense on 3rd-and-1 and 4th-and-1. You'll notice Jones was at the center of it all, the bottom of the pile, and last man to emerge on both plays. He stuffed Packers' RB Aaron Jones on the goal as well.
Of course, it's important a nose tackle does what a nose tackle needs to do – namely taking on doubles and making tackles – and in that regard Jones can also get it done. This was plain old nasty against the Steelers, splitting Ramon Foster and Maurkice Pouncey to stuff James Connor.
D.J. Jones is one of the 49ers’ young players who has been ascending and was really pulling his weight on one of the NFL’s best defensive lines last year before his injury prevented him from showing his stuff on the national playoff stage. He's arguably one of the most underappreciated players on the roster with Laken Tomlinson and Kyle Jusczyzk, who are high-performing starters, one being a Pro Bowler. Another year in this defense with line coach Kris Kocurek, another year of maturity, and a slightly larger share of snaps with Buckner now gone, and Jones could flourish.
When asked about the upcoming season, Jones on the call with media this week doubled down on his ability to grow as a pass-rushing DT, something especially valuable: “I know I have it in me. I just need the opportunity, and I need to continue to work on my craft to get better … Like I said, if I stop my feet, I’ll be stuck in mud and I won’t be able to make any plays. As long as my feet keep working, and my hands are working, I’ll get to the quarterback.”
Media courtesy San Francisco 49ers, Getty Images