A year ago, the 49ers weren’t quite sure what they had in defensive lineman D.J. Jones.
San Francisco selected the interior defender in the sixth round out of Mississippi, and he was strong enough in training camp and exhibition games to earn a regular-season roster spot. But Jones appeared in just nine games and played 147 defensive snaps, while also playing on special teams.
His stats weren’t much to celebrate, with 10 total tackles. Plus, the analytic website Pro Football Focus gave him a mediocre grade for his rookie season. Going into this year’s training camp, Jones certainly didn’t appear to have a job locked up.
Yet halfway through the exhibition-game schedule, Jones is playing much better than he did a year ago. In the 49ers’ game against the Houston Texans last Saturday, Jones had three tackles and knocked the ball loose from a Texans running back – which was recovered by the 49ers – and earned Pro Football Focus’ highest grade on defense for the game, noted Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle.
As the 49ers move toward setting their 53-man roster for the season opener, Jones’ improved play – and that of fellow defensive tackle Sheldon Day – appears to be giving the team much more depth at the tackle positions behind starters Earl Mitchell and DeForest Buckner.
It’s a big change from late last season when the 49ers decided to keep Jones off the active roster for the final six games when his level of play dropped.
Part of the reason for Jones’ better play is his improved fitness. Listed at 6 feet and 321 pounds last season, Jones told Branch he lost as much as 20 pounds during intense workouts this offseason at home in the heat of South Carolina. Jones said he did three-hour workouts during the middle of the day that included a lot of lifting and running (including up and down bleachers at a high school field).
“I feel way better,” Jones told Branch. “A lot better. I feel faster, stronger. I can breathe better, actually.”
But, Jones hasn’t lost any strength. The former Ole Miss standout can bench press 440 pounds, and he showed against the Texans that he can bull his way through even double-team blocks.
It’s possible that with a strong season in 2018 and beyond, Jones could work his way into becoming a future replacement for Mitchell, the 31-year-old veteran who is signed through 2020.
The 49ers this week will travel to Indianapolis to take on the Colts in an exhibition game Saturday at 1:30 p.m. PDT.
Photo Credit: Getty Images
Source: NBC Bay Area