For Bears linebacker Christian Jones, football is no longer just a matter of how fast he can run or quickly he can react. It’s how well can he learn.
The lesson the undrafted rookie from Florida State has learned already is that he can no longer lean on his superior athleticism to be an impact player — or a player at all — in the NFL.
“I feel like that’s what I’ve been doing,” Jones said, “but since I’ve been here, I’ve been getting coached real well on fundamentals and techniques. I’ve been trying to do my best to take what I’ve learned in the meeting room out to the field. I think I’ve been growing as a linebacker.”
With Lance Briggs out for the season, the 6-3, 240-pound Jones will get plenty of opportunity as the starting nickel linebacker to show just how well he’s learning and growing. He’s shown flashes in spot duty — he had 16 tackles in place of the injured Briggs against the Patriots on Oct. 26 at Gillette Stadium, but a lot of that was in garbage time in a blowout loss.
“I’m excited for the opportunity. I’m looking forward to it,” said Jones, who has played seven games on defense this season. “I just want to do whatever I can to help the team win. You’ve go these next four games — it would be nice for us to close out the season strong.”
With a playoff berth unlikely, the 5-7 Bears would at least like to see if they have something they can build on for 2015 — and a breakout linebacker is high on the list.
Second-year pro Jon Bostic, who has replaced Briggs as the starting weak side linebacker, is one candidate. Jones might be even more intriguing. A former prep All-American who was rated as one of the top 20 prospects in the nation at Lake Howell High School in Winter Park, Fla. — the same high school that Brandon Marshall attended — Jones has size, agility and what defensive coordinator Mel Tucker calls his “obvious highway speed.” He was a three-year starter at Florida State, one of the defensive leaders on last season’s national championship team.
“Christian is a really hard worker,” Tucker said. “You just look at the guy and watch him and say, ‘This guy’s got some really good athletic ability. But he has a very strong work ethic and it’s day-in and day-out. Not just every now and then.
“So when you get a guy like that, that is willing to work at it every day — he’s got talent and he wants to be good. A guy like that has a chance to develop.”
It’s all — or at least mostly — about fundamentals and technique.
“I’ve learned to use my hands more — how to shed blocks,” Jones said. “Before I used to use my [athletic] ability to get around blocks or just shoot gaps. Now I’m learning to be more fundamentally sound with my hands and my leverage and gap responsibility.”
The high-spirited Jones knows this is the opportunity he’s been waiting for.
“I’ve always felt I could play in the league,” he said. “It’s just that now I’m getting a chance to show it. I’m just trying to take advantage of the opportunity.”