Versatility key as Mike Macdonald plans to unlock Dre'Mont Jones and Seahawks defense

RENTON, Wash. — Over the first half of 2023, Dre’Mont Jones was almost exclusively a defensive tackle, lining up inside on the vast majority of his snaps.

Over the second half, he was predominantly a defensive end.

And by the time his first season with the Seattle Seahawks was in the books, Jones was something of an enigma, a highly talented player whose impact didn’t quite match up with the hype that accompanied his arrival as one of the biggest free agent acquisitions in franchise history.

Enter Mike Macdonald.

The Seahawks’ new head coach isn’t installing a copy-and-paste version of the scheme he coordinated in Baltimore over the last two seasons, but he is bringing with him elements that made the Ravens’ defense perhaps the toughest in the NFL to solve. One of the ways in which they plan to keep opposing offenses guessing and put their defenders in advantageous positions is by constantly moving them around up front.

That’s why versatility has been the buzzword of the offseason among Seahawks defensive linemen, coaches and even their personnel department.

“One thing that I would emphasize is versatility,” assistant general manager Nolan Teasley said before the draft when asked about the change in defensive style from former coach Pete Carroll to Macdonald.

“I think they probably touched on it by retaining [Leonard Williams]. His ability to play up and down the line of scrimmage depending on the front and personnel. I know a player that we’re really excited about, that they’re excited about moving around is Dre’Mont Jones because of his ability off the edge, his ability to rush anywhere from the three-technique to the six, maybe even out to the nine.”

Williams, who re-signed in March after arriving via trade last October, said he’s been working at five other positions in addition to his usual spot as a three-technique defensive tackle.

“I think it benefits us in creating matchups where you’re putting the defensive player in the best position and then you’re also confusing the offense,” Williams said during minicamp earlier this month.

“It makes it harder for the offense to study us knowing that they may see Dre’Mont at a five-technique on film, and then when we line up and play against them, he’s probably going to be playing zero- or three-technique. So it’s harder for an offense to scheme against one specific player because we move around so much.”

Can that help Macdonald and defensive coordinator Aden Durde unlock the 27-year-old Jones?

His debut season with the Seahawks was more solid than spectacular, at least relative to expectations that came with his big contract.

The three-year, $51.53 million deal Jones signed with Seattle last March easily made him the highest-paid free agent acquisition of the Carroll-John Schneider era. His $17.18 million average far surpassed the $9.53 million average of the deal the Seahawks gave outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu 12 months earlier, which was previously the most that regime had spent on another team’s free agent.

Jones produced career-highs in tackles (49) and QB hits (12) while playing in all 17 games, and one of his 4.5 sacks came in the final minute of a Christmas Eve game against the Tennessee Titans to help the Seahawks close out a three-point win that kept their playoff hopes alive.

But that was Jones’ lowest sack total since his 2019 rookie season with the Denver Broncos, when he posted 3.5 (he recorded 6.5, 5.5 and 6.5 over the next three years). His five tackles for loss were also his fewest since 2019.

One thought inside the Virginia Mason Athletic Center is that Seahawks coaches didn’t use Jones in a way that maximized his strengths. According to ESPN Stats and Information, he played 329 snaps at defensive tackle and only 45 at defensive end over the first nine games. Then after Nwosu went down with a torn pectoral in October and Williams arrived via trade eight days later, Jones moved outside, playing 302 snaps at end and 61 at tackle over the final eight games.

So while the Seahawks did utilize Jones’ versatility last season, they didn’t do so on a play-by-play basis like their new staff intends to in 2024.

And while their exact plans for individual players are still being sorted out, signs point to the edge potentially being something of a home base for Jones. That would make sense given how well-stocked Seattle is at defensive tackle with Williams, Jarran Reed, first-round pick Byron Murphy II and veteran addition Johnathan Hankins, among others.

Over the offseason, Jones’ personal trainer shared a video of Jones dropping into coverage during an on-field workout. During minicamp, he took part in position drills with the outside linebackers. That was after he showed up weighing around 265-270 pounds, down from his listed weight of 281.

During an 11-on-11 period in the second minicamp practice, Jones lined up on the edge opposite Williams with Seattle’s defense in dime, and then a few plays later he was inside next to Williams in a nickel package.

“I think his skillset lends to trying to play a little matchup ball with him or setting another guy up,” Macdonald said. “He can do a lot of things. We’ve talked about it, but we’re really excited about Dre’Mont.”

Macdonald credited Jones for being in “great shape” and for staying up to speed with Seattle’s defensive installation despite being away from the facility during voluntary Organized Team Activities; Jones posted on Instagram earlier this month that he recently became a father for the second time.

“He knew a lot of the stuff we were doing even though he hadn’t been in the building,” Macdonald said.

Before departing for the pre-training camp summer break, the Seahawks converted $9.875 million of Jones’ $11 million base salary for 2024 into a signing bonus and added a pair of void years onto the end of his deal in order to create $7.4 million in salary cap space. That’s a common restructure done solely to give Seattle some needed breathing room against the spending limit, as no new money was added.

The bigger change for Jones will be with his expanding role along Seattle’s defensive line.

“When you have guys that can do multiple things, play different gaps in the run game and rush at different levels in the pass game and you can have more big guys, it just opens up more personnel groups, more looks you can generate,” Macdonald said. “Overall, it’s good for us. … We’ll kind of reassess how the spring has been, reassess our plan going into camp, and then as camp goes, we’re going see how it evolves throughout camp. I think you have to have that attitude. If you just cookie cutter it … I think you limit yourself on how far you can take your team.”

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