The Detroit Lions raised a lot of eyebrows on draft night this year with their second-round selection of Jahlani Tavai. While Detroit taking a linebacker that high wasn’t all that surprising—it was an underreported need for the team—the choice itself was certainly unexpected.
But this roster review isn’t about Tavai, it’s about the player he may be bumping out of the starting lineup eventually.
Christian Jones has been the forgotten member of the Lions’ linebacker squad. A relatively undersold free agent signing in 2018, Jones actually played a huge role for the Lions defense, and his performance was probably better than you remember.
Expectations before 2018
Jones was coming off a pretty poor year with the Chicago Bears, but with the Lions moving on from Tahir Whitehead, it was clear from the moment Detroit signed Jones to a two-year deal, he was headed for a starting role.
The hope was Jones would thrive in a system that better fits his skill-set, but as someone that had been in and out of the starting lineup for the first four years of his career, it wasn’t exactly clear what his biggest strengths were.
Actual role in 2018
2018 stats: 16 games (16 starts): 69 tackles, 1.0 sacks, 3 passes defended, 1 forced fumble
PFF grade: 65.3 (43rd among linebackers)
For the first time in his career, Jones started all 16 games in a season. As a result, he had one of his most productive seasons ever.
The early quality of his play on the field was inconclusive. At first, it seemed like he—along with a lot of other defenders on the squad—was still gaining his footing on the new defensive system. His PFF grade was downright awful, and the Lions linebackers were routinely giving up big plays both in the passing and running game.
But there’s a clear point in the season in which everything seemed to click for Jones. It came right around the bye week. After that, Jones was one of the better linebackers in the league:
Jones grade from Weeks 5-17 was 74.3 overall, 20th by LB— PFF DET Lions (@PFF_Lions) June 28, 2019
His 80.4 run defense grade ranked 10th
And 78.3 tackling grade ranked 19th
Of course, that also happens to coincide with the addition of Damon Harrison Sr. Still, the way Jones finished the season was extremely promising, and gives the Lions some serious hope going into 2019—meaning they don’t have to rush rookie linebacker Tavai into the starting lineup.
Outlook for 2019
Contract status: Signed through 2019 season
For now, Christian Jones’ job is very safe. The Lions remain fairly thin at linebacker, and with the way Jones finished the season, Detroit can be confident he’ll be a consistently good starter in 2019.
That being said, his future with the team will be an interesting one to follow. With the presumed development of Tavai, Jones may not have a firm grip on a starting job for long. Still, Jones brings plenty of value. He’s a great special teams player, will likely re-sign at a reasonably thrifty price, and he’s only 28 years old right now. He’s exactly the kind of player you’d like as depth, and with two years of experience under Patricia, he’d be a great re-signing next year.
Of course, if Jones has another good year in 2019, he’ll likely be seeking a bigger role and a more lucrative contract. If that’s the case, it’s hard to see him sticking around in 2020.