PITTSBURGH -- What must happen for Jarvis Jones over the next eight months can be distilled into about as many words -- something the rookie outside linebacker did earlier this week.
“I’ve got to get big and strong, man,” Jones said.
A significant part of the Steelers’ 2014 pass rush depends on it.
Coach Mike Tomlin says players make the most improvement from the first to their second NFL season, and the Steelers especially need for that to happen with Jones given the potential moving parts they have at outside linebacker.
Jason Worilds is going to be an unrestricted free agent. LaMarr Woodley makes too much money relative to his recent production to return at the current rate. He will at least have to accept a pay cut to be back in 2014, and the offseason uncertainty at outside linebacker is such that there is a chance, albeit a remote one, that Jones could be among the most experienced players at his position when the Steelers convene training camp.
Jones didn’t bite when asked about that possibility, and that is because he knows how important this offseason is for him regardless of what happens with Worilds and Woodley, who has a salary-cap hit of $13,6 million in 2014 and is a candidate to get released.
“I’ve got to work harder than I ever did before, physically and mentally,” said Jones, who had just one of the Steeles' 34 sacks this season. “Get in the best shape I’ve ever been and I’ve got to continue to try and learn and grasp this game of football the best way I can.”
Jones is listed at 6-foot-2, 245 pounds, and he said he isn’t as concerned with bulking up as much as he is simply getting stronger. Just as significant for Jones is strengthening his grasp on the defense.
He learned enough to become the first rookie outside linebacker to start for the Steelers since they went to a 3-4 defense in 1982.
But Jones had to cram, like most rookies, and his goal during the offseason will be gaining a better understanding of the nuances of his position.
Perhaps most encouraging about Jones is he has already exhibited plenty of growth.
The former Georgia All-American started eight of the 14 games he played in this season, missing two of them because of a concussion and an illness. He played his best game of the season last Sunday, leading the Steelers with nine tackles in a 20-7 win over the Browns and looking a lot more comfortable at right outside linebacker than he had earlier in the season.
When asked to assess his rookie campaign, Jones said, “I think things went well, could have been a whole lot better for me.”
That last statement is among that reasons why the Steelers are so high on Jones.
He doesn’t assume his success is preordained simply because he is a first-round draft pick – one that the Steelers were elated to make last April.
“There’s nothing given in this league, and I understood that from Day 1,” Jones said. “So whatever you want in this league, you’ve got to go take it.”