It all began in Week 3 of this 2022 season. The Browns were hosting division rival Pittsburgh Steelers in a nationally televised game on Thursday Night Football.
With less than five minutes elapsed in the third quarter, Steelers running back Jaylen Warren took a shuttle pass and whisked by Cleveland linebacker Anthony Walker. While in pursuit, Walker’s knee went the opposite direction as the rest of his body and he buckled. As Walker lay motionless on his stomach, Steelers offensive tackle Chukwuma Okorafor, not knowing Walker was now injured, pounced on the linebacker’s back with all his 6’-6”, 320-pound frame in case Walker attempted to get up and pursue.
He wasn’t. He couldn’t.
The net result of the injury was a torn quad tendon in Walker’s left leg. He then underwent surgery to repair it.
With the Browns’ defense, it was like – now what? The Captain of the ship wasn’t coming back. Who would now make defensive calls? The man had 113 total tackles last year and was a mainstay in the run defense for this unit.
The short answer was to insert Jacob Phillips, Sione Takitaki, Tony Fields, or Jordan Kunaszyk. Someone. Surely one of these dudes would rise up and take Walker’s blade and defend the kingdom. Someone?
Run defense 101-ish
This began the beginning portion of the schedule where opponents began to run wild against the Browns.
Atlanta gained 202 yards as the Chargers the following week knifed 238 yards on the ground. Something had to give. Something had to change.
That something became Deion Jones.
Before the Browns’ players could complete their showers and put on deodorant, Cleveland GM Andrew Berry had made a trade for the linebacker Jones. Berry knew he needed a heavy hitter on the field behind the inexperienced and smallish defensive tackle group. He needed someone who could come in and hit somebody the way a defensive player needs to hit a running back or tight end. Make some pop music on someone’s ass to be sure.
Jones is that kinda player.
Last year, Jones (6’-1”, 222 pounds) had 137 total tackles. The year before that was 106. In 2019, it was 110. In his sophomore campaign, he netted 138 tackles. In all before being traded to the Browns, Jones has 652 tackles. Talk about productivity.
What is completely odd is the fact that the Browns are an analytics team, and analytics do not dictate to pay the linebackers any decent amount of money. Write checks in the $3-$4 million dollar range annually for sure, but nothing more.
Yet, Jones was set to be paid $13.53 million this year. He was in the final year of a four-year deal worth $57 million. What gives? Was Berry going to break the analytics piggy bank in order to get Jones’ talent?
The truth of the matter is that the Falcons agreed to carry a $12.14 million dead cap hit in 2023 from Jones who has no contract guarantees beyond 2022. Meanwhile, Cleveland would owe Jones just $1.39 million over the remainder of this season, plus pay him a roster bonus of $31,250 for each game he is active.
Therefore, that mystery is solved and the analytics bookkeeper still has his job.
Jones, nicknamed Debo, grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana, and went to Jesuit High School. He played guard on the school’s basketball team where he wore #0. He was considered one of the area’s best basketball players who had been an elite athlete having played on a travel team since he was six years old.
He also played recreational football and was installed as middle linebacker on the Jesuit football squad because he had good speed and was a consistent tackler. He got his nickname from his father, whose favorite NFL players were Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson, thus De-Bo.
As a young child growing up and playing little league, he always had a dream to play professional football. While at Jesuit he learned how to play middle linebacker, a position that fit his physical attributes well. At the time, he was 6’-2”, weighed 200 pounds, and ran a 4.43 in the 40.
Jones is also a Hurricane Katrina survivor and is one of the league’s first Katrina children who went through that horrific experience as an actual kid. Katrina forced the 10-year-old Jones and his family to live out of a suitcase for half a year.
“Coming back from that makes you feel like you can come back from anything,” Jones told BleacherReport.com. “From having to move from where you grew up and make a new start and still have the resiliency to come back and rebuild and keep the tradition of New Orleans alive. My biggest concern was will I be able to go back home. That’s where I grew up, where I had all my friends and childhood memories. I was just worried if I was gonna be able to finish playing football with my friends.”
Going into his senior high school season he had some interest with colleges, but before the year was out in which he had 179 tackles, three interceptions along with eight sacks plus a playoff berth for his school, he had 17 firm offers from schools such as Kansas, Arizona, Nebraska, Illinois, Minnesota, Pitt, TCU, Kansas State and Arizona State. He was ranked a three-star recruit by Rivals.com.
After his official visits, he decided that Lincoln, Nebraska, home of the Cornhuskers, was his best opportunity. Five months later, he flipped that decision when in-state LSU made an offer. If you grew up in New Orleans and played high school football, you wanted two things: to go to LSU and become an LSU Tiger, and then play for the Saints in the NFL.
LSU had a very good defense when Jones arrived. He played sparingly his freshman year and had just 23 tackles, most on special teams. In his sophomore campaign, he did not crack the starting defense and his playing time and total tackles (15) were minimal. Most players by going into their junior year have one thing on their mind which is to have a great season then declare for the NFL draft and start making some money.
For Jones, none of that happened. Linebackers Kwon Alexander, Lamar Louis, and D.J. Welter in the middle were firmly entrenched as the starters. At least in his junior year, Jones was able to play some defensive snaps instead of making tackles on punt and kickoff teams. He concluded that year with 26 tackles along with 3.5 tackles for loss and a fumble recovery.
He became a starter for LSU in his senior year in 2015. At the beginning of the year, he wasn’t really a highly-talked-about guy. His passport was hard work which paid off. He settled in and responded by making 100 total tackles along with five sacks, one forced fumble, two picks, three batted passes, one touchdown, and 13.5 tackles for loss. With this sensational year, he was added as a Butkus Award finalist and given to the nation’s best linebacker.
The news came on the heels of LSU losing three straight games. He told ESPN:
“To tell you the truth, I’m blessed and I’m honored to be one of the finalists for the Butkus, but the most important thing for me right now is to get this sour taste out of my mouth,” Jones said. “I need to taste sweet victory. All I wanted was to be a big part of LSU’s defense, which has always been my dream, and get after it — anyway, form or fashion.”
In that three-game losing streak, Jones averaged 10 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss per game. He posted a career-high 14 stops in the last game, a loss to Ole Miss.
Jones was invited to participate in the prestigious Senior Bowl. It was here that he realized he could compete against the best talent in the nation as he was placed every day in practice against tough competition who were the top senior athletes. The announcement came at an LSU practice in front of all of his teammates which was exciting because of all the scrutiny the Senior Bowl goes through with its selection process. He was assigned jersey #0 at his request.
He is also very intelligent, has selflessness, and had a sense of maturity early on.
He would later get an invite to participate in the Combine. There he ran a 4.51 in the 40. Then at this LSU Pro Day, that time changed to 4.39 and everything changed. When asked what made the difference in times, Jones stated to seniorbowl.com that the Combine was intimidating:
“I really lost focus on the little things when I was out there in Indy. It was a little intimidating and here I really felt like at home, I had my friends and family and coaches. It was a little better environment I guess.”
Once he got back home in his comfortable surroundings, he was able to relax and take care of business. Which meant running an incredible time which added to his draft status.
Onto the NFL
Only two linebackers were selected in the first round of the NFL draft. New Orleans took a defensive tackle early in that round but had a second-round decision to make at Number 47. That pick went for WR Michael Thomas from Ohio State. While his dream of playing for his hometown Saints was smaller in the rearview mirror, five picks later, the Atlanta Falcons chose Jones with the 52nd overall pick.
Jones signed a four-year $4.54 million deal with a signing bonus of $1.5 million. He went into Falcons training camp as the backup to MLB Paul Worrilow who served as a mentor to Jones instead of shunning the youngster who was drafted to take his job. Worrilow had been the Falcons’ middle linebacker for three seasons and led the team in tackles all three years.
On opening day, Jones was named the starter. He ended his rookie season with 13 starts, 108 tackles, four tackles for loss, 11 batted passes, two QB hits, one forced fumble, scored two touchdowns, and was named to the PFWA All-Rookie Team. Atlanta had also competed and lost to New England in Super Bowl LI.
Jones was a candidate for the league’s Defensive Rookie of the Year honors but lost out Joey Bosa of the Los Angeles Chargers.
The next year in training camp Jones was the undisputed starter at the MIKE as Worrilow signed with Detroit in free agency. Knowing he would be retained on every down, Jones lit it up with 138 total tackles, one sack, 10 tackles for loss, three interceptions, plus 10 pass defenses. In 2017, Jones was named to the Pro Bowl in just his second NFL season. He was even named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week in Week 14 against, yeh, New Orleans.
Jones was having another Pro Bowl-caliber year in 2018 but was placed on injured reserve after tests revealed he required a procedure on his foot after Week 1. He was able to come back in Week 13 and recorded 53 tackles for just six games.
In subsequent seasons his tackle totals were 110, 106, and 137 last year.
In the meanwhile, Jones set up a foundation called the Deion Jones Family Foundation which is a registered non-profit 501(c)(3) organization. Their efforts are centralized around financial resources and teaching skills to improve the collective lives of youth and their families in New Orleans and across America.
During the off-season, Jones had a right shoulder procedure which placed him on the PUP list early in training camp. He participated in joint practices with Jacksonville prior to the final preseason game and played less than two quarters. Jones again made the 53-man final roster, but two days later was placed on IR/return.
This is all very strange because he spent a solid week practicing and then played one-and-one-half quarters against Jacksonville.
At the conclusion of the Browns’ loss to the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 5, GM Andrew Berry made a trade with Atlanta to bring Jones to Cleveland in exchange for a 2024 sixth-round pick. The Browns also received a 2024 seventh-round draft pick in the deal.
The cog was that Jones was still on IR when the trade was announced. For him to be designated for return, there was a three-week window for Jones to practice with the team. He could be activated at any point in that window or be shut down for the year if he was not activated.
Against Baltimore, he was activated and played his first game in orange and brown. In that contest, he had five tackles, one tackle for loss, 33 snaps, and one embarrassing stiff arm welcoming him to the AFC North.
Joe Woods sends in the blitz and takes down Joe Burrow. Welcome to Cleveland, Deion Jones.— Camryn Justice (@camijustice) November 1, 2022
In the win over Cincinnati on Monday Night Football, Jones was extremely active. He had the third most tackles (5) including a key sack midway through the third quarter.
Now, Jones is ready to assume a much larger load. LB Jacob Phillips landed on IR to keep Walker company which leaves Cleveland very thin at the linebacker position.
Head coach Kevin Stefanski is happy Jones is with the defense as he explained to Browns.com:
“He’s a good veteran linebacker for us. He hasn’t played football in a little while so I think it was just natural that he’s playing himself into — he’s in good shape — football shape, if you will, just because of when you haven’t played in a while and you are thrust out there. I think he will only get better because of that. Has a very good understanding of what we’re doing.”
For now, Jones has to get up to speed and fill in the gap left by two other middle linebackers lost in a single season. He also knows he has to work back into being a full-time player.
Jones mentioned to Browns.com:
“(I’m) just constantly on the grind, getting in the playbook, learning all I can learn and (want to) pick up from where (Phillips) left off. It was good to be back out there, flying around and tackling. It was good. It was fun.”
This Browns defense needs a guy who has a ton of productivity and is a proven tackler. Plus, he knows how to tackle. The surgery in May for a cleanup on the shoulder is nothing to be concerned with at this point and Jones noted it feels fine now.
Safety John Johnson told cleveland.com:
“His skill set is very unique. He’s been doing it for a good amount of time, making a lot of plays. I think he’s a guy everybody knows, even if you don’t really watch Atlanta, you still know that guy just from him running around making plays. Like I said, any time you get a guy like that on your defense, it can always help, just looking forward to it.”
So basically Atlanta moved on from Jones with some cheaper linebacker help and Cleveland gets a tackling machine for the middle of this porous defense who has had north of 100 tackles in five of his six previous seasons.
Jones revealed to Browns.com:
“It’s just been getting the terminology down, getting out there, and playing with it. The biggest thing for me was getting to know these guys and jelling in the locker room. Other than that I am excited. Can’t wait to get started.”
Having a guy who is a consistent tackler will make every Browns fan happy.