Byron Jones has a lot of things on his plate as the No. 1 cornerback of the Dallas Cowboys. His mission is to prove that 2018 was no fluke, that he truly is one of the game’s best cornerbacks and an elite player worthy of continuous Pro Bowl and All-Pro accolades. Standing in his way is a hip injury suffered sometime during the 2018 season that required offseason surgery.
When the injury and under-the-knife plans were revealed earlier in the year, there was a projected timeline that would have Jones miss most of the offseason work and still be held out into training camp. Jones, however, on the final day of organized team activities, isn’t subscribing to that theory. Rapid improvement in the hip leads him to believe he can be ready to go by the beginning of camp in late July.
“Overall, rehab is going well. Working on it every day. I’m starting to do lower-body lifts,” Jones said. “The frustrating part is I want to go, and I feel I can run. But I have to listen to the (athletic trainers), and so I’m taking my time, being patient and just doing what they’re telling me to do.”
But ultimately, the goal isn’t for Jones to be ready this summer, or even make it back for next week’s three-day minicamp. He is eyeing the start of training camp in late July as a true target date for his return.
“Definitely. I want to be back at training camp,” Jones said. “I want to be back with my teammates and play in the preseason games. That’s the target.”
This accelarated timeline shouldn’t be a surprise. Jones famously snapped his knee back into place and kept it pushing a few years ago.
Jones had an iconic year at right cornerback for the Cowboys. After spending the majority of his first three seasons playing a hybrid defensive back role and spending far too many snaps at safety, Kris Richard moved him to boundary corner and the 2015 first-round pick flourished. He was as lockdown a defender as there could be in today’s NFL, allowing under 50% completions in seven of the team’s first 12 games.
It was in the 12th game, against New Orleans, where Jones may have suffered the injury. His play certainly wasn’t on par after that point, giving up a passer rating over 138 on throws in his direction in three of his final six games, and over 90 in five of those six.
His play was so good over the first stretch of the season though, it didn’t much matter, earning Jones high praise and a second-team All-Pro nod.
Jones has a lot on the table in 2019, so getting back on the field is imperative. He is going to play the season on his fifth-year option, meaning he is slated to be an unrestricted free agent in 2020. Even with the option being based on the transition tag, Jones is severely underpaid. The option is based on the position played during the player’s third season, which for Jones was at safety – a less rewarded position than corner.
Granted, $6.3 million surely isn’t chump change, but it’s about $3 million less than if Dallas had been playing him at corner all along. The Cowboys are looking to work out long-term agreements with many of their young stars, but have QB Dak Prescott, WR Amari Cooper, RB Ezekiel Elliott and even possibly LB Jaylon Smith ahead of Jones in their hierarchy.
That could lead to Jones receiving the franchise tag in 2020, to make sure Dallas doesn’t lose him. The entire cornerback depth chart is full of rentals at this point, making things even more difficult.
Anthony Brown, the starter in the slot, is also on an expiring deal, and No. 2 and No. 4 corners, Chido Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis, will have their contracts expire after 2020. Dallas drafted Miami’s Michael Jackson in the fifth round of the 2019 draft, hoping he can learn quickly and be inserted in the rotation to help offset any depth.
Jones doesn’t seem to have plans for that to happen on his watch, for his position.
“You always want to be better than the previous year. That’s always my goal,” Jones said. “That’s really my philosophy in life – just be better than the day before. Just keep building on top of that.”
If he gets back in time for a full training camp, there’s no reason to question his ability to do so.
What if an NFL draft prospect ran a 3.99-second 40-yard dash? Or put up 52 reps on the bench press? That’s essentially what UConn cornerback Byron Jones did at the NFL Scouting Combine, when he set his feet and broad-jumped an astounding 12’3″.
Per NFL Media’s Mike Mayock, the best he’d seen since covering the combine in 2003 was 11’7″; Jones beat that mark by 5.8 percent.
The 6’1″, 199-pounder’s incredible explosion was on display in the vertical jump, too. His 44.5″ mark was best among defensive backs this year and second to only Georgia wide receiver Chris Conley overall. In case you missed it, NFL Media kindly provided the jaw-dropping clips:
As fantastic as those numbers were, we didn’t get to see the one drill we wanted to see most: Jones sprinting halfway down the Lucas Oil Field sideline. Unbelievably, per NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport, Jones is still recovering from labrum surgery, so we’ll have to wait until Jones’ pro day to see him in full flight.
The 2015 draft class is thin at cornerback—a premium position—and elite athleticism commands a premium above and beyond that. Did Jones just vault to the top of draft boards around the NFL?
Going into the combine, Bleacher Report NFL draft lead writer Matt Miller didn’t have Jones in his top 50 prospects. In fact, Jones only barely cracked Miller’s top 25 cornerbacks, at No. 24. With his big frame and aggressive, physical approach, Jones’ explosion numbers should make him a lock for the first round. So why isn’t he?
As the Hartford Courant’s Desmond Conner wrote during the season, the team captain and four-year starter fell short of everyone’s expectations on the field in 2014.
“I think I need to step it up,” Jones said, per Conner. “Being as athletic as I am, I have to apply that to the game of football. There’s no reason to be in a good position and not get an interception or not bat the ball away and make the tackle.”
That quote came in a story reacting to Jones’ poor game against FCS squad Stony Brook, where one of the Seawolves went up over Jones for a crucial catch in an unexpectedly close 19-16 UConn win.
“I’m working on it every day,” Jones said. “I talked to Coach multiple times. We’re on it together. He’s down my back. I’m down my own back. I was frustrated with the play but you have to roll with the punches and keep playing. I couldn’t crawl into a corner.”
Five weeks later, Jones returned his first interception of the season for a touchdown against South Florida. One week after that, Jones snagged another pick—and then suffered the torn labrum that ended his collegiate career.
NFL Media’s Daniel Jeremiah shared his scouting report on Jones, calling him a potential “steal”:
Across the NFL, scouts will be going back to the miles of tape Jones put out in four seasons at UConn to figure out where those top-of-the-draft tools were hiding. They’ll also try to spot what held Jones back from getting the most out of his jaw-dropping skill set. Per Chip Malafronte and Jim Fuller of the New Haven Register, it isn’t an issue of character or motivation.
With so few elite athletes at the cornerback position, NFL teams will do their homework on this kid. Of course, there have been plenty of workout warriors who failed to translate those skills to the football field. Plenty of freakily athletic prospects never became All-Pros.
Jones did, however, catch the attention of everyone in the football-watching world. After all, there’s a huge difference between a player who can’t jump 44.5″ and a player who doesn’t always out-jump Colonial Athletic Association wide receivers—and sometimes, NFL coaching can bridge that difference.
If Jones wants to keep the football world drooling, first he’ll have to repeat the feats (or come close) at UConn’s Mar. 31 pro day, per DraftInsider.net’s Tony Pauline. Then Jones will have to top himself by cutting a very fast 40-yard dash.
If he does those things, Jones just might jump up the draft board—way, way up.