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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It is easy to forget, but when the New England Patriots opened training camp in late July, first-round draft choice Chandler Jones was the second-string right defensive end.
The initial depth chart had Rob Ninkovich at right end and free-agent signee Trevor Scott at left end. When Ninkovich tweaked his oblique on the third day of camp and was limited for a few days of practice, Jones elevated to the top unit.
He never relinquished the spot, with Ninkovich moving to the left side upon his return.
Jones has been one of the Patriots' best defenders halfway through the season, playing 91.9 percent of the defensive snaps (including penalties), totaling a team-high six sacks and having been credited by coaches with 37 tackles and 2 passes defended.
|Chandler Jones leads the Patriots with six sacks through eight games.|
His emergence has surprised many, and based on the first depth chart, one wonders if it also caught the Patriots' coaching staff by surprise.
"It's an unfair comparison because he's not this guy, but he has some Jason Pierre-Paul qualities," said ESPN.com NFL scout Matt Williamson, who formerly worked for the Cleveland Browns. "He's really, really gifted, so long, so athletic. With that long stride length, he eats up grass in a hurry, and he's powerful and versatile."
Each week on ESPN.com, Williamson produces the Rookie Watch, which ranks the top contributors in the NFL, and the 6-foot-5, 260-pound Jones is third behind quarterbacks Andrew Luck (Colts) and Robert Griffin III (Redskins).
"There isn't a defensive rookie that is outplaying him," said Williamson, who has only two other defenders on his top 10 list this week -- Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly and Seattle Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner. "I'm running out of good things to say about him."
Williamson said this year's rookie class isn't as deep as last year's, "but Jones would be on the list any year."
As for Jones making such an early impact, Williamson is surprised, even though he was high on Jones coming out of Syracuse, calling him the best defensive end in the draft.
"I thought he'd be a designated pass-rusher, similar to what the Seahawks are doing with their first-round pick, Bruce Irvin, and what the 49ers did last year with Aldon Smith," said Williamson, noting that many felt it would be fellow first-round pick Dont'a Hightower, having played under former Belichick assistant Nick Saban at Alabama, who would be the rookie to emerge in a full-time role. "I didn't think he'd play the run as well as he has. So right from the start, he's playing every down and he's solid, whether you run at him or away. He handles that really well. He uses his hands well and feels the run pressure."
That thought was echoed by Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh.
"The way he plays his run sets, his consistency with that has been excellent," Harbaugh said of Jones in the days leading up to the Patriots-Ravens game on Sept. 23. "I'm impressed with how well he's been coached and how disciplined he is and the attention to detail he plays with for a rookie. He's obviously tremendously gifted, but they've done a great job bringing him along so quickly."
Looking ahead, Williamson sees two things to monitor with Jones -- tapping his versatility and the potential of opponents devoting more resources to slow him down.
"We'll see him do more as Bill Belichick gains more comfort level with him -- standing up as a 3-4 outside linebacker or even bumping inside as a 3-4 defensive end at times," Williamson said. "He's really a 4-3 end now, and clearly the best one on the team, and clearly the best defensive rookie in the league.
"As teams start to pay more attention to him, you might find that they still need one more guy, that other bookend pass-rusher in which everybody knows who he is. It's finding the [LaMarr] Woodley to the [James] Harrison, the [Elvis] Dumervil to the [Von] Miller. When you have two really high-end rushers, it makes you that much more effective."
In terms of Jones' effectiveness, the Patriots couldn't ask for much more at this point. Humble off the field and a terror on it, Jones represents a draft hit for coach Bill Belichick. Jones is a difference-maker with endless upside.
Looking back, it's hard to believe he opened training camp as a backup.