RICHMOND — If there was a silver lining to Vince Wilfork being sidelined for most of the 2013 season, it was that the Patriots were forced to lean on some of their younger players.
One of those youngsters, Chris Jones, didn’t even have the benefit of spending the offseason, or even his first NFL training camp, with New England, but he rose to the occasion admirably.
A sixth-round pick of the Texans last year after being named Mid-American Conference defensive player of the year for Bowling Green, Jones was cut out of training camp, claimed by the Buccaneers, and then released again 10 days later.
The Patriots had long had their eyes on Jones, and after missing out after he was released by Houston, they put in another claim after Tampa Bay let him go. They were awarded the 6-foot-1-inch, 309-pound Indiana native.
Jones was active for the first time in Week 4 against Atlanta — and he was needed as Wilfork tore his Achilles’ that day. A week later, Tommy Kelly suffered a torn ACL.
So on Oct. 20, a little more than a month after arriving in Foxborough, Jones found himself among the starters against the Jets. Unfortunately, that game ended up being memorable for all the wrong reasons as he was flagged for a push during a late field goal.
That overshadowed an otherwise strong game as Jones was credited with nine tackles and two sacks.
Jones started every game the rest of the way, including both playoff games, and his six sacks were second among rookies to Detroit’s Ziggy Ansah.
Wilfork and Kelly are back on the field, and the Patriots drafted a tackle, Dominique Easley, with their first-round pick this year, so despite his first-season success, Jones is focused on keeping his job.
“Confidence-wise I wouldn’t say [last year’s experience] is a huge booster; I can’t be too lax with it,” he said. “I’ve just got to keep myself poised and make sure I compete every day because you’ve got all these guys that are healthy now and it’s going to be a competition through all of camp and I just have to make sure that I play to the best of my potential.
“I’m still here and I’m trying to keep my job and keep working.”
Teammate Rob Ninkovich believes the 792 snaps Jones played last season are invaluable.
“When he came into the organization, he was just thrown into the fire there and it was feast or famine, so he had to go out there and he had to play,” Ninkovich said. “I think it was valuable for him, getting that game-time experience. Nothing can replace that. I think that all the practices, all the scrimmages in the world can’t give you the in-game experience that you get when you’re on that football field.
“Him having that, I think it’s helped him grow as a player and I’m excited for him; he’s had a good camp so far. But we’re not done, so he’s got to continue to improve. We’ve all got to get better.”
The defensive captain can see the growth in Jones because of those 15 games he has under his belt.
“I think it’s just knowledge. When you’re out there on the field, learning through your experience, the first time you see something you might get beat [but] obviously having that experience, he’s out there, he’s seeing things, he’s getting a little more comfortable and recognizing plays before they happen and that all comes with experience,” Ninkovich said.
After the first day of practices with the Redskins on Monday, Jones said he liked getting work in against some new players with different techniques, which is helping his learning process.
Jones’s playing time wasn’t planned, and neither was another big event in his life last year. He got married on New Year’s Day on the Gillette Stadium field with a guest appearance from Bill Belichick.
Jones said he loves married life. “I hope she feels the same,” he said, laughing.Shalise Manza Young can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.