Each was drafted in the first round to be a pass-rushing demon. They’ve both displayed flashes of ability, but injuries and inconsistency have prevented them from being consistent starters.
Now, their 2016 seasons will be evaluated to answer one crucial question: can either provide a suitable replacement for Julius Peppers?
Perry was recently re-signed to a one-year, $5 million deal following the expiration of his rookie deal. It is essentially a “prove it” deal, as Green Bay will weigh after this season if he can consistently provide the production he displayed in spurts last year. The Packers declined last season to pick up his fifth-year option, which would have cost them $7.75 million.
Jones, one year younger than Perry, enters 2016 in essentially the same shoes. It is highly unlikely that the Packers will pick up his fifth-year option, and Jones will need to use this year to prove to both the Packers and the rest of the NFL that he can be an available and productive front seven player.
This week, at the NFL owners meetings in Florida, Mike McCarthy said that Jones would play this season as an “elephant” pass rusher. That’s essentially the position that Perry and Peppers have played the past two seasons: an outside linebacker in most scenarios, and a defensive lineman on some obvious passing downs.
With the conclusion of Peppers’ contract and his likely retirement, Green Bay’s outside linebacker position lacks any long-term stability after the 2016 season. Jayrone Elliott will be a restricted free agent following this season, and the Packers seem content to let Mike Neal walk this offseason.
This leaves Perry and Jones, the pair of first-round draft picks, as the team’s best hopes for a long-term running mate opposite Clay Matthews.
Jones first played outside linebacker against the San Francisco 49ers in the 2014 playoffs, and he began playing the position with regularity in the second half of the 2015 season. While he is a liability in coverage (as Perry is), the added space allows him to use his explosive first step to be a true outside pass rusher, as he was during his prolific UCLA career.
Jones has only 8.5 sacks in his career, but he has been an impactful pass rusher and just missed a frustrating number of sacks. According to the coaches’ count, he finished second on the team last year with 13 quarterback hits.
Perry, meanwhile, makes his impact as a powerful bull rusher, and he’s amassed 12.5 sacks through four seasons. That excludes his six postseason sacks, including 3.5 last year. He is more experienced playing off the ball and a superior run defender to Jones as he has displayed an excellent ability to set the edge.
Make no mistake about it: Matthews and Peppers will be the Packers’ premier pass rushers this season. But McCarthy has indicated a desire to get Peppers more rest this season, and Matthews may still play some inside linebacker. This should leave Perry and Jones with enough opportunities to make their cases to the Packers and the league as elite pass-rushers.
Ted Thompson should have enough money to extend at least one of these players to a fairly lucrative long-term contract after this year. It’s also possible that they are both re-signed, or that a draft pick emerges and Thompson allows both players to walk.
In the end, it will all depend on what Perry and Jones do with their opportunities this year. Perry made a lot of money this offseason with 3.5 sacks in the playoffs, including 2.5 against Washington’s standout left tackle Trent Williams in the wild-card round. If either player can display talent like that on a consistent basis, they will make themselves hot commodities on the free agent market.
The guess here is that Perry flashes more than Jones and is rewarded with a fairly lucrative contract next year as Peppers’ replacement, while Jones either signs for a smaller sum of money with the Packers or moves to a 4-3 team.
Training camp hasn’t even started, and it remains to be seen which new faces are added in the draft. The only thing that is certain at this point is that 2016 will be a defining season in these two young players’ careers.