It was a little over six months ago when West Virginia football fans were personal witnesses to the possible greatness of NFL defensive end prospect Chandler Jones. In a 49-23 loss at the hands of the Syracuse Orange at a nearly-packed Carrier Dome, Jones returned to the field after missing the previous six games because of a lower-body injury to tally six solo tackles, including two critical sacks of WVU's junior quarterback Geno Smith, in dominating performance.
At the time, I remember sitting in the press box thinking, "Chalk that up as a solid showcase of talent that will look outstanding on NFL Draft scouting video." The performance was basically flawless, as Jones was able to, by himself, shutdown a late-first half, Mountaineers drive by sacking Smith on consecutive plays -- the second being more impressive than the first. And then, in the second half, Jones used all of his body length and strength to sniff out a first-down, screen pass to WVU freshman running back Dustin Garrison, who could have ran 20-plus yards but, instead, was tackled after just four.
In the end, it could be argued, that performance is what has vaulted the 6-foot-5, 265-pound defensive end from a third-round projection to now a possible top-15 selection come Thursday's prime-time event in Times Square.
And while the rest of the NFL Draft world falls in love with Jones, who is brothers with Arthur, a defensive end for the Baltimore Ravens, and Jon, who's the youngest UFC title holder in history, the Syracuse football world is wondering: "How is our guy, who's supposed to be a pass-rushing defensive end, going in the first round when he tallied 10 sacks in 32 collegiate games and had a history of health problems playing for us?"
Now, don't get me wrong, nobody wearing Orange is rooting against Jones, but its hard for a fan base to grasp such a projection.
Really, what changed? Was he that impressive in workouts? Interviews? How much does his brothers' success/backing have to do with this? WHY WASN'T HE THIS GOOD FOR US?!?!?
It turns out, Syracuse fans were, again, part of a bad draw because NFL draft gurus and front-office brass see Jones on tape and see a guy with great football character that can turn his raw talent into something special.
"The No. 9 player on my board is Chandler Jones, a defensive end from Syracuse," said NFL Network's Draft expert Mike Mayock Monday on The Dan Patrick Show. "So, when teams tell me he's too high, well, I am going to keep him there, because I believe in him there, because I did the work, I watched the tape."
Since Jones' decision to go pro, which came back in December, SB Nation New York has been tracking his draft projections, here's how its played out.
- Dec. 30: 3rd-round grade by NFL advisory committee.
- Jan. 18: 4th-rounder via Wes Bunting of the National Football Post.
- Jan. 25: 2nd-3rd rounder via ESPN's Scouts Inc. Steve Muench.
- Feb. 3: 1st-rounder via ESPN.com's Todd McShay.
- Feb. 26: 3rd-round via NFL Draft Tek and, well, me too.
- March 20: 3rd-round via NFL Draft Tek.
- April 14: Mid-late 1st rounder.
- April 19: 2nd-round via NFL Draft Tek.
Now, I've followed the NFL Draft for a while, but I don't follow it closely enough to remember a prospect rising as fast as Jones. What's even more interesting, Jones is doing so basically by himself, because the recent (non) clout of the Syracuse football program isn't helping his case. I guess, that's why Jones' rise is so intriguing.
At Syracuse, he was the best player in a "small pond" that hasn't produced a big NFL Draft fish since 2002, when defensive end Dwight Freeney was picked in the first round, No. 11 overall, by the Indianapolis Colts.
From the get-go, Freeney was a no-brainier as he has wreaked havoc on collegiate and professional offensive linemen for about 14 years now. The case with Jones, however, isn't the same. In fact, Jones' wreaking havoc-like play only stems from that West Virginia game about six months ago.
Of course, over the course of his three seasons at Syracuse, there were other glimpses of potential, but nothing to the extent of what Freeney did in his two seasons at Syracuse -- 17.5 sacks in '01-02 and a school-record 34 sacks overall -- and what Jones did on that day against the Mountaineers.
Yet, here we all are, six months later, and Jones is getting a draft grade near as good as Freeney, but nobody -- at least in the Syracuse area -- is going to buy into that type of hype. Again, nobody is doubting Jones' potential, because nobody was against him entering the NFL Draft, but in the same aspect nobody who is close to or covers the Syracuse football program (cough, cough -- me) is buying him as a first-round talent. At least, not yet.
But that's the beauty of the NFL Draft, and why football fans -- college or pro -- love it so much. Not only are NFL franchises planning their futures in front of everyone's eyes, but people are fulfilling childhood dreams by making a living (or millions of dollars) playing a game. And in the end, sometimes one's most important moments come during the most unexpected times.
For Jones, that time was Oct. 22 against WVU, when he came off a six-game layoff to dominate a (then) top-25 program. That was enough for NFL front-office brass and scouts to believe in him. Will they be right?
I am curious to find out.
-- For more on Syracuse Orange football NFL Draft prospects, check back to this StoryStream. Need more reaction to Jones' possible departure, visit the SB Nation blog Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician.