FOXBOROUGH — On Saturday morning, as some of his Patriots teammates were doing some early-practice special teams work, Chandler Jones was sitting in the area between the two practice fields.
It’s not common for Jones to be sitting — he is seemingly forever in motion, often playing catch with a teammate during that time, making one-handed sideline grabs, a smile frequently on his face.
But as he sat, Jones scanned the nearby hillside, which had very few fans, a far cry from most of New England’s training camp practices. He spotted a middle school-aged boy wearing his No. 95 jersey, pointed and waved. The boy excitedly waved back.
Fair to say, the young man’s day was made.
Jones, entering his fourth season, is keenly aware of fans. It’s become a Christmas tradition for him to retweet those who send him pictures of themselves in their new, fresh-out-of the-wrapping-paper No. 95 memorabilia. The support means a great deal to him.
Through his play and his personality, it’s easy to see why Patriots followers would gravitate toward him. Tight end and friend Rob Gronkowski is often referred to as someone who’s never had a bad day, but Jones has an equally sunny outlook.
“For me, I was still — I am still now, today — almost star-struck that I’m an NFL player,” he said when asked his memories of playing in his first preseason game, in 2012. “Going out there, you go out there with the big eyes, you’re looking into the stands, even though they try to tell you be focused on what’s going on on the field, you can’t help to look out into the stands a little bit.”
The 21st overall pick out of Syracuse, a player Bill Belichick so wanted that he actually moved up in the first round to get him, Jones’s length (he’s listed at 6 feet 5 inches) and quickness had some hoping he’d become the Patriots’ own Jason Pierre-Paul, the Giants’ similarly sized defensive end who had totaled 16½ sacks the season before.
Jones had six sacks, five pass breakups, and three forced fumbles in 14 games as a rookie (he missed time in the regular season because of a sprained ankle, spraining the other ankle in the postseason), then 11½ sacks in his second year. He became just the fifth player in Belichick’s tenure in New England with 10 or more sacks in a season.
Last year, he was on pace for another double-digit sack total when he injured a hip against the Jets in Week 7 that forced him out for six games.
He returned for the final three regular-season games and the postseason, and had one of his better performances against the Seahawks in the Super Bowl, sacking Russell Wilson in the second quarter and finishing with three tackles.
Jones wants to keep getting better, building on that night in Arizona.
“Every game, actually,” he said. “You’re only as good as your last game, people say. I truly feel like even during the season, Week 2 I want to do better than Week 1, Week 3 I want to do better than Week 2, so every week you want to progress.
“The last time I played was during the Super Bowl and hopefully that first game that we play I’m a lot better than I was in the Super Bowl, because that’s the last game I played.”
Former Patriot Willie McGinest, in town last week for his induction into the franchise Hall of Fame, believes Jones is on a good path.
“He has to be consistent. This defense depends on him getting to the quarterback and being tough against the run, and what he also has to understand is that offenses will game plan for him,” McGinest said. “They’ll slide protections. They’ll chip. They’ll do whatever. I think he’s been playing good ball. What he needs to understand is they know who he is now. He’s not a surprise. He’s not going to surprise anybody. They’re going to prepare and game plan for him.”
The hip problem had to be addressed again once the Super Bowl confetti stopped falling, causing Jones to miss the Patriots’ on-field work during the spring. He’s good to go now, though it appears his snaps have been a little limited in camp; he hasn’t taken as many reps as others in one-on-ones against offensive linemen. (The team didn’t practice Sunday.)
Now that he’s been in Foxborough for a few years, it’s natural for Jones to become a leader to both rookies and new players; he knows the system and he knows the program, he notes, so it’s part of his job to spread his knowledge.
Despite missing time to injury in two of his first three years, Jones doesn’t want to think about durability, just improving.
“You can’t really go in thinking about what people are thinking or about your durability, you just have to do your job,” he said. “It’s part of the sport that you get hurt; people don’t go out there with the intention to get hurt, it just happens. You pray for the best and hope that you don’t get hurt. If you go out there thinking about it, that’s when it happens.
“My mind is [focused on] just going out there and just playing football, having fun.”