PITTSBURGH – Jarvis Jones is not James Harrison. For one thing, there’s the hair.
The rookie Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker has long dreadlocks that appear under his helmet and skitter across his name when he sprints into the backfield.
There’s the body, too. The 6-foot-2, 245-pound Jones is taller, leaner and wispier than the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year who was cut by the Steelers in a salary cap move in March.
Then there’s the demeanor. Where Harrison was all snarl, the 23-year-old Jones is Southern charm.
Yet Jones understands he is the heir apparent. The Steelers tend not to take risks with first-round draft picks. The comparisons are inevitable after they chose the speedy Georgia kid, who led the NCAA in sacks last fall, with the 17th selection. The draft came just six weeks after releasing the productive but aging Harrison.
“I don’t compare myself in no way to James Harrison,” Jones said. “He’s a great player. Respect him. Never met him. But I love his game. I wouldn’t mind being an impact player like James Harrison.”
Neither would the Steelers.
Pittsburgh led the NFL in fewest yards allowed in 2012 but failed to produce the kind of splash plays – namely sacks and turnovers – that have helped make the franchise perennial Super Bowl contenders. Injuries to Harrison, outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley and safety Troy Polamalu forced the Steelers to play solid but safe. Pittsburgh finished tied for 15th with 37 sacks and 24th in takeaways with 20.
Jones could bring back some of the menace. He set a Georgia record with 14.5 sacks in 2012; his ability to wreak havoc in opposing backfields from the edge had him projected as a potential Top 5 picks.
Instead, concerns about Jones’ neck – diagnosed with a narrowing of the spinal column early in his collegiate career – and his speed after running a sluggish 40-yard-dash sent him tumbling to the Steelers in the middle of the first round.
Not that it bothered Jones. There are worse places to land than a team that forged its identity and won six Super Bowl titles on the backbone of a 3-4 defense which has served as the NFL’s gold standard for most of the last 40 years.
Besides, as Jones pointed out Friday, “at the end of the day, those guys are picking early for a reason. I landed right where I want to be.”
Even if Jones is not the starter – at least not yet. Jason Worilds, who finished second on the team with five sacks, is atop the depth chart, and coach Mike Tomlin isn’t quite ready to anoint Jones.
“He’s going to be a rookie, and he’ll go through the same thing rookies go through,” Tomlin said. “We’re not going to take anything for granted in terms of his growth and development.”
Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s complex playbook can make it difficult for first-year players to find playing time. There will be plenty of studying before training camp opens in July. Jones hardly appears overcome by the sudden thrust from NFL prospect to NFL player.
Asked to describe LeBeau, Jones just smiled and called the Hall-of-Famer “chill.”
Then again, it’s early. The Steelers might not be rebuilding, but they are regrouping after an 8-8 season. Jones will get a chance to prove he belongs. In a way, he already does. In the hours after hearing his name called by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Jones received congratulatory phone calls and texts from Woodley, Polamalu and Ben Roethlisberger.
“I can’t wait to get in the locker room with those guys and just learn from those guys,” he said. “It’s definitely a blessing to be on the field with those guys.”
The Steelers might talk about having Jones take his time and learn the system, but in today’s NFL, first-round picks aren’t supposed to wait their turn, particularly if it’s a position where there’s a significant need.
Jones impressed Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert with his maturity. He’ll need to lean on it to fit into an organization that’s still knee-deep in veterans. As Tomlin likes to say, “the standard is the standard,” regardless if it’s Harrison out there or Jones. That’s fine by the kid in the 95 jersey.
“They’re about winning,” Jones said. “They’re about playing hard-nosed defense, and they’re about playing down after down. I see it, and I know what it means.”