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Josh Jones Set to Reprise LeRoy Butler’s Role

From the end of the draft to now, the biggest news out of Green Bay has been the Packers’ plan to use the safety they drafted in the second round as a linebacker. Yes, Mike McCarthy came right out and said, “If (Josh Jones) has the ability to play three positions, we need to give him that opportunity.”

Three positions? Director of player personnel Brian Gutekunst did the coach one better: “He’s played a lot of different positions in the back end for North Carolina State. He’s played safety, he’s played a little corner, a little nickel corner, some middle linebacker… we’re excited to get him.”

If he plays on special teams, that would make at least five positions, maybe six if they put his speed and size to use as a punt returner.

But getting back to the defense, I think it’s time for some new nomenclature. When five defensive backs line up on defense, we call it the nickel – not very creative. Then when six DBs are on the field, we call it the dime – which hardly brings to mind the number six.

Remember all the talk going into 2016 about the “elephant” position? The word at least captures one’s imagination. The idea there is that some extra-large linebacker plays outside linebacker on some plays and defensive end on others.

When Josh Jones comes in and replaces a linebacker, how about calling it the gazelle formation? And instead of the dime, let’s call it the twin gazelle. If these terms ever get “coined,” that can be my NFL legacy.

What distinguishes the gazelle from the nickel is that Jones would not just be another defensive back. He’d have the option of dropping back to defend passes, of staying around the line of scrimmage to defend against the run, or of blitzing the quarterback. With Jones strutting around when the offense lines up, the opposing team would have difficulty knowing what play to call in the huddle or what audible play the QB might call, and the offensive line would have difficulty formulating a blocking scheme.

The Packers experimented with playing Morgan Burnett in place of a linebacker during training camp last year. Not a lot came of it until week 14. That’s when the Seahawks came to town. With their linebacker ranks depleted by injuries, the Packers inserted Burnett at nickel linebacker for almost the entire game. The result was a dominating 38-10 win. Not only did Burnett snare an interception – one of five picks of Russell Wilson – he came up with seven tackles.

For the year, it was calculated that a little more than a quarter of Burnett’s snaps came playing a sub-package position rather than strong safety.

The Green Bay coaches and staff have made no secret of their intention to use Jones in a similar role, and quickly, in 2017. Like Burnett, Jones is versatile, but he’s also bigger by 11 pounds and faster by a tenth of a second (4.41 vs. 4.51 in the 40-yard dash). Jones should adapt to the role quickly, because he’s played a similar hybrid role for much of his four-year career at NC State.

It’s All Been Done Before

Before signing off, I decided to look around to see if other NFL teams have ever made use of the “gazelle.” Sure enough, I uncovered a quote by Jene Bramel, writing for The New York Times’ NFL blog, The Fifth Down. Guess what: the Packers did the same thing on the way to winning the Super Bowl in 1996. Here’s the quote:

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, another defensive guru, Fritz Shurmur, devised the “Big Nickel” (aka “Wolverine”) 4-2-5 defense. Shurmur used the scheme to great success against the juggernaut 49ers, but often used it as a base defense in later years when his linebackers were beset by injury. The Big Nickel allowed Shurmur to get an extra safety-linebacker hybrid into the lineup. Depending on his personnel, he could cover and pass-rush with the secondary personnel, but still support the run, all while disguising which coverage his defense would play.

Shurmur was, of course, the Packers’ innovative defensive coordinator from 1994 to 1998. After that, he followed coach Mike Holmgren on to Seattle. Shurmur grew up in Michigan and once coached for the Detroit Lions, which probably explains where the moniker “wolverine” came from. I’m afraid this puts my dream of NFL immortality in jeopardy.

And who was the wolverine gazelle back then? It had to have been strong safety LeRoy Butler. The other starting safety around that time was Eugene Robinson. Aided by often playing the wolverine gazelle position, Butler became the first defensive back in NFL history to record 20 sacks and 20 interceptions.

Here’s hoping that Josh Jones picks up where LeRoy Butler left off.

Rob Born

Smart drafters don’t select the best available players, they fill a team’s positions of greatest need.



  1. Howard May 25, 2017

    I know I would be happy if Jones over time could be close to a LeRoy Butler. That is a lot to ask of a rookie. For the first season maybe we should just ask for a bigger Troy Polamalu. ;-)

  2. Kato May 25, 2017

    No. Just no. I mean, it is fun to project and try and predict roles for new players, but as far as I am concerned, he can’t play a single position adequately in the NFL until proven otherwise. Much less even play at a Leroy Butler level.

  3. Ferris May 25, 2017

    Eugene Robinson…Mr Prostitute.

    1. Jschizl May 26, 2017

      Oh yeah super bowl night man of the year

    2. Savage57 May 26, 2017

      “Hmmm. Tomorrow’s the Super Bowl, what should I do tonight? I know! Ima go buy some pussy!”

      1. Empacador May 26, 2017

        Maybe he and Barret Robbins could form a club. For players who dash their teams chances at winning the Superbowl.

  4. Packers fan May 25, 2017

    He will take Hyde’s role this year, then when/if Burnett leaves, he is his replacement. So if I’m the Packers, if Jones does replace Burnett, I would sign a free agent that replaces Micah Hyde. If Burnett does stay, I see him replacing Hyde for the long term. I think Josh Jones and Kevin King are the steal of this draft.

    I’d use Josh Jones the way the Cardinals use Buccanon