After nearly four stressful months of being analyzed and picked apart by experts who questioned his health and athleticism, Jarvis Jones has finally made it to the next level.
The Pittsburgh Steelers selected the Carver High and University of Georgia product with the 17th pick in the NFL draft on Thursday, putting him in elite company among past Bi-City athletes.
Jones said in a conference call after he was selected that he was confident he wouldn’t slide past the Steelers’ pick.
“I was very confident and they sounded pretty legit to me,” Jones said. ''(Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin) was talking about how he liked my game and how I could fit in right away, and do what I’m supposed to do. Just come in and play, they needed an outside linebacker.”
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Jones will join the team with a chance to earn the starting spot vacated by former outside linebacker James Harrison, now a member of the Cincinnati Bengals. In his nine seasons as part of Steelers defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau’s defense, Harrison, an undrafted free agent, amassed 456 tackles, 64 sacks and 29 forced fumbles.
Jones is expected to help fill the void left by the ultra-successful defender.
“I’ve got a lot of work to do to get to James Harrison,” Jones said. “The guy is powerful, has speed and he is a pro. I’m trying to get on the level he’s at.”
Tomlin, who was present at Jones’ pro day in March, said he thought Jones was a good fit for his team’s defense.
“When you look at the outside linebackers in the 3-4 defenses, generally there is some projection and so forth involved in the evaluation,” he said. “This was an easy evaluation from that standpoint. He plays in a very similar scheme, he’s asked to do things in a manner in which he’ll be asked to do here in Pittsburgh.”
Draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. said after the pick that Pittsburgh was “fortunate” Jones dropped to it, with many experts predicting he would be taken by the New Orleans Saints at 15.
Jones was at one point considered to be the top player in the 2013 class by both ESPN draft experts, Kiper and Todd McShay.
Even though he dropped down many experts’ boards, scouts still praise his production and intangibles while an outside linebacker at Georgia.
After an explosive sophomore season in which he led the Bulldogs defense with 70 tackles and 13.5 sacks, Jones catapulted up the list of potential draft picks in 2012. He elected to return for his junior season, however, and didn’t disappoint, improving those totals to 85 and 14.5, respectively. The latter is a record for the University of Georgia.
He was selected to the All-American team in both seasons.
His selection by the Steelers comes despite concerns over a sub-par performance at his pro day last month in Athens and lingering questions regarding his long-term health.
Former NFL coach and current ESPN analyst Jon Gruden said during the draft that “size, speed and stenosis” were the reasons Jones slid as far as he did.
“From a production standpoint, it’s not even close,” Gruden concluded.
After reports surfaced in February that a handful of teams had removed Jones from their draft boards due to questions about his neck Jones began to fall in projections from scouts and analysts alike. The questions stemmed from a diagnosis of spinal stenosis following a neck injury in 2009 while he was a member of Southern California.
Jones said he had been cleared at the combine, and questions about his health were never posed by the Steelers.
“They did not have any questions at all,” he said. “I was fine at the combine. The doctor had cleared me. After I left the combine, I was cleared.”
Still, analysts like Kiper believed Jones was a top-10 caliber pick and would perform well at the next level. Some scouts have compared Jones’ situation to Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs, who notched a 4.85 40 time and has gone on to be one of the most successful defenders in the league.
Former Carver High coach Dell McGee praised Jones’ natural ability and said he believes it will translate well to the NFL.
“He has great physical tools,” McGee said. “He’s got size, speed, everything. He has that big-play capability that pro athletes possess.”
David Mitchell, 706-571-8571; Follow David on Twitter @leprepsports.