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Deion Jones ready to ‘compete for my spot’ after returning to Falcons

The former Pro Bowler practiced for the first time since training camp started

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Buffalo Bills Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

There were plenty of new faces out on the Falcons’ practice fields in Flowery Branch on Wednesday for the start of joint practices against the Jacksonville Jaguars, but one of them belonged to Atlanta.

Veteran linebacker Deion Jones suited up for his first practice of training camp, ending his month-long stint on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list. That Jones would have this reunion with his Falcons teammates seemed to be a tenuous proposition at various points this offseason.

Jones was the subject of numerous trade rumors, and Jeff Schultz of The Athletic reported earlier in August that the Falcons had attempted to trade the former Pro Bowl linebacker but were not successful and elected to keep him instead of cutting him.

“To be honest, I didn’t even see them,” Jones said when asked about the rumors. “I don’t really be on social media during the offseason. If I would have known something, if it was something serious, [Arthur Smith] would have called me, my agent would have called me.”

When asked if he expected to be back with the Falcons in 2022, Jones insisted he was certain.

“I had no question about me being back here. I figured I was going to be back here, and I was just getting my mindset ready and my body ready to come back.”

Well, Jones is back. So, what does that mean for Atlanta moving forward?

As of now, apparently not too much. Jones did not slot back into his starting role, and the team seems content to let him earn his way back into the fold. He was working primarily with the third- and fourth-team linebacker units and saw plenty of action in special teams drills, which is often a rarity for a locked-in starter.

With final roster cuts less than a week away, a rapid rise up the depth chart could be in the cards, but this is certainly a statement about accountability and performance. Jones had undoubtedly his worst season as a member of the Falcons in 2021, and that poor play helped fuel the trade speculation.

“I give Deion credit because he’s going to come out here, he’s going to compete, he’s going to work his way back in, and it’s going to be hard getting on the field in that room because that’s what you want in that competition…but I will say this about Deion, I’ll give him credit because he’s got the right mindset to come out here and prove something,” head coach Arthur Smith said. “He knows what he’s got to improve on from last year and that competition’s real, so I appreciate him, and he wants to be back and wants to compete, so we’ll see where it goes.”

Once considered one of the most promising young linebackers in the league, Jones has struggled to recapture his early career form. While his 137 tackles last season were one shy of his career-high (albeit in one extra game), Jones allowed 422 yards after the catch – by far the most of his career – and missed a career-high 17 tackles.

At his best, Jones can be a heat-seeking missile chasing down ball carriers sideline to sideline, as well a predator in zone coverage with reaction skills to make quarterbacks pay. As Atlanta adjusted to a new defense last season, it’s clear there were some growing pains for Jones. That’s something he’s worked to correct.

“It was more just like working in more space on the sidelines,” Jones said. “Being on the outside of the formations, just a little different feel than the middle. That was basically the angles, the adjustments. I feel like I’m pretty good with it, that’s something I worked on this offseason.”

If Jones’s shoulder is fully healed from what he called “a little cleanup” early in the offseason, perhaps he can recapture some of the freedom he played with in his best days. Jones has yet to turn 28, and the defense is searching for solutions this season. There’s no question the Falcons should see what he can contribute while he’s still around.

How he’ll contribute, exactly, is another question. Jones said he’s learning all of the linebacker positions at the moment. And while he took part in installs with the team and was learning on his iPad, it’s a bit unusual for someone of Jones’s experience to be learning all of the linebacker positions, especially this late in camp. Perhaps he was referring to only the two inside linebacker spots, but that still suggests the Falcons are searching for the right way to use Jones’s talents.

Whatever Atlanta has in store for Jones, he seems to be in a good headspace entering his seventh NFL season, the first where real questions about his future with the Falcons linger.

“I definitely have a better outlook on the defense this year,” Jones said. “I had a chance to look back and figure out where I could help and where I could get better. And just being honest with myself, having a new outlook this season. Forgetting it, and pick up where I left off.”

With a clean bill of health, Jones says all that’s left for him is to knock the rust off. He still showed plenty of speed during the joint practice periods, but there were some miscues as well.

The Falcons have one final game remaining this preseason against Jacksonville on Saturday. It remains to be seen what Atlanta’s plan is for their starters, but after a Monday night game and two joint practices, the leash might be short. Jones wouldn’t disclose any potential plans for his usage on Saturday, but perhaps that will provide more clues about the team’s plans.

For now, though, the Falcons want to see Jones put in the work, to earn his keep. That’s something he seems ready for.

“Every year I come in and compete for my spot,” Jones said. “Every year we come in and compete for our spots, so I’m cool with it. It is what it is.”