TEMPE, Ariz. — Chandler Jones was just getting warmed up last season, and he knew it.
In his first season with the Arizona Cardinals after getting traded from New England in March, Jones had 11 sacks in 2016. But last season was a 16-game learning curve for him. With each practice and game, Jones learned more about the Cardinals’ 3-4 scheme. He picked up nuances and keys. As the season progressed, Jones grew into the Cards’ system.
But just wait. Jones told ESPN in December that the more time he spends in James Bettcher’s defense, the more productive he’ll be.
“It’s getting familiar with the defense,” Jones told ESPN days before he had 1.5 sacks in Arizona’s season finale. “I’m new here, and I’m not trying to use that as an excuse for low sack numbers, but I feel once I get a year under my belt I’ll be more familiar with the defense, and I’ll know what plays I can take shots on and make inside moves on and things of that nature. And that will definitely increase my stats, for sure.”
Well, Jones now has that year in the Cardinals’ defense and will very likely return in 2017 to build on a second-straight double-digit sack total.
A 13-sack season could be in the cards. Maybe 15. Maybe more.
The Cardinals placed the “non-exclusive” franchise tag on Jones on Monday, Jones’ birthday, giving him at least another season to continue to grow in the defense. They’ll be allowed to negotiate with the freshly minted 27-year-old until 4 p.m. ET on July 15. If Jones receives an offer sheet from another team, the Cardinals can either match it and keep Jones, or let him accept it and they will get two first-round picks in return.
But after Jones’ 2016 season, it’s hard to think Arizona will let him walk.
He singlehandedly improved the Cardinals’ pass rush — an area that needed significant improvement heading into last season — by pairing with fellow outside linebacker Markus Golden to combine for 23.5 sacks. Last season was the third time in franchise history — and first in 32 years — that the Cardinals had multiple players with double-digit sack totals.
He also gave the Cardinals another defensive star and someone else for offenses to devise a game plan around.
With Jones on the field, Arizona’s pressure percentage last season was 30 percent, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Without Jones, it dropped to 23 percent. His presence alone helped Golden reach a career-high in sacks and defensive tackle Calais Campbell achieve eight sacks.
If Jones can take what he learned in the Cardinals’ offense last season and build on it, he could surpass his career-high of 12.5 sacks, set in 2015 with the Patriots.
And if Jones can continuing building on last season, the Cardinals’ pass rush will be secure for the foreseeable future.