One of the most intriguing players in the 2013 NFL Draft class is Alabama center Barrett Jones. He is a rare offensive lineman who enters the NFL as an option to start at any of the five positions on the offensive line. Jones is one of the most decorated linemen in college football history. He has been an All-American at guard, left tackle and center. He won the Outland Trophy given to the nation's best offensive linemen as a junior in 2011 while playing left tackle. In his senior season at center, he was awarded the Rimington Trophy as the top player at that position in the nation.
Jones sustained a lisfranc injury in the SEC Championship against Georgia, however. Despite the painful foot injury, Jones finished that outing and played with it versus Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship. The injury prevented Jones from participating at the Senior Bowl and the NFL Scouting Combine.
Earlier in the week, scouts told WalterFootball.com that they believe Jones will start his NFL career on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list. Jones, his doctors and his representatives disagree with that assessment and feel he's going to be ready to participate in his NFL's team offseason program. Jones spoke with WalterFootball.com to update the timetable of his return.
"Rehab has been going great," said Jones. "I'm ahead of schedule. All signs are good. I'm starting to jog a little bit. I'm definitely on track to be ready for the season and feeling good."
Training camp sounded like a given to Jones. He believes he'll be ready to participate in OTAs (organized team activities) and mandatory mini-camps that will in May and June.
"I expect to be back by the end of May, but the latest by the beginning of June," said Jones. "That's definitely the plan."
At Alabama, Jones was a four-year starter as the Crimson Tide established a dynasty with three national championships in Jones' four seasons. Over those years, Jones was a jack of all trades for the coaching staff.
"I started at right guard my first year," Jones said. "First of all our theory at Alabama is we're going to play the best five guys. I started at right guard and played there for two whole seasons. Then 2011 came up and we didn't really have a solid option at left tackle, so Coach Saban came to me and said how would you feel about playing left tackle and giving that a try. I said absolutely I'd love to try that.
"At first the transition was tough because it is a lot different than right guard, but I got used to it and really started to understand set lines and everything that went along with left tackle. I actually ended up having a really good year there. At the end of that year we had a freshman who was coming off an injury, a redshirt freshman who was a really good player, Cyrus Kouandjio. We knew he was going to be a really good left tackle but we didn't have a center, so Coach came to me again and said what do you think about playing center. I said absolutely I'd love to try it. So I learned how to snap the ball and make the calls. It worked out really well. I just tried to help the team where ever I could and that's the same way I'll be in the NFL."
Alabama clearly had a ton of success running behind Jones. As a freshman, he blocked for Mark Ingram during his Heisman Trophy season in 2009. Trent Richardson then had a prolific season in 2011 to become the third-overall pick in last April's draft. As a senior, Jones helped lead the way for Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon to big seasons. He also was equally good in pass protection including his junior season as a blind side protector. With his success all over the line, there has been debate about which position he would be best at playing in the NFL.
"Well first of all I'll play anything they want me to play," Jones said. "I think a lot of teams are looking at me inside, whether that be center or guard. A lot of times those positions are interchangeable. I don't know where I'll start but I think it'll be inside. I'm just excited to learn the business and get an opportunity to try and help a team there."
Helping Jones to make the transition to the NFL is his vast experience against elite talent. As a 4-year starter in the nation's best conference, Jones has had a lot of success against future first-round picks. However, his best preparation for the NFL could have come going against his teammates in practice.
"That's funny you mention you that because I always said that the coaches had it out for me," Jones said. "My first year I played right guard and went against Terrence Cody, who now plays for the Ravens. My second year I thought Cody's gone so I'll have it easier, but then I got Marcell Dareus who plays for the Bills. Then I thought well Marcell is graduating so I should get a little easier time out here, but they move me to left tackle and I play against Courtney Upshaw, who also plays for the Ravens. Then he graduated and I thought well now I'll finally have an easier time, but I move to center and get Jesse Williams. So I've had a tough journey in practice, but like you said that gets you better. The games seemed easier after going against those guys in practice. They're extremely talented and really good football players."
One thing that NFL teams can be confident in is nobody will prepare better than Jones. While many players find the film room tedious, especially the young ones, Jones enjoys studying up and playing the chess match in getting the right blocking scheme called.
"That is definitely my favorite thing about center - I love the preparation that comes along with it," Jones said. "I can use my intelligence there and apply that. I also like being in control. I'm a control freak, so I enjoy having that control over the line. Making the calls and helping the quarterback. That's definitely a fun place to be. It is a position I really enjoy. It is a hard position mentally because it comes with a lot of extra homework. You have to make sure you're on the same page as the quarterback and you're the leader of the offensive line so if you make a wrong call than everybody is going to be wrong, so you have to make sure that everyones set up and ready to execute the play."
In preparing for center, Jones had an NFL veteran that he admired for years to set an example for how he wanted to play the position.
"I watched a lot of different players from playing so many positions, but the center I watched the most while growing up was Jeff Saturday," Jones said. "I loved the way that he and Peyton Manning worked together. The way they made the calls and the way they looked like they really understood what was going on with the defense. Definitely I enjoyed watching him as a kid and he's who I think about with the center position."
Unfortunately Jones hasn't been able to meet Saturday yet.
"No I have not. I'm not that cool."
Despite not being able to participate in the Senior Bowl or Combine, Jones is in the running to be the first center selected. With Jones getting healthy for the start of the season, it is perfectly reasonable that he could have a late rise in the final weeks up to the draft. He has four years of great tape to go along with superb intangibles. It isn't impossible for Jones to be a late first-round pick.
Scouts have told WalterFootball.com that their coaching staffs love Jones and they wouldn't be surprised if they make a hard push for him. Coaches love the versatility that Jones brings in case injuries hit on game day. A starting center that can flip to left tackle or guard improves the team's overall depth and ability to execute on game days. After speaking with scouts, they believe that Jones will be selected on the second day of the draft, and that jibes with the feedback Jones has received. Jones said he doesn't have any expectations about where he will be drafted.
"I've heard a lot of second-round things," Jones revealed. "You never know. If I happen to slip through or go higher, I know that God has a team out there for me and that's where I'm meant to go. I just trust in that plan. I don't think anybody really knows. It is a tough process because you don't have any control over it."
Jones said he has met with a lot of teams at Alabama but hasn't traveled to team facilities yet.
"I've already had several," said Jones of team meetings. "The way we do our visits are at school. I haven't gone to any places, but all the teams have come to Alabama. We do things differently. We have three pro days and three times where teams come and meet with us. A lot of teams come to those because we have a lot of good players. I've had the chance to meet with several different teams. I'm excited but you're not sure about where you're going but you just try and do your best in the interviews."
There weren't any particular teams that stood out to Jones as showing more interest than others. The Chiefs, however, are said to be interested in Jones because of his versatility.
"Its hard to say. I've met with so many of them it is hard to pinpoint a few," Jones said. "They don't like to show their cards and reveal exactly what you're thinking."
Thinking is a strong suit of Jones as he was an Academic All-American that had a 4.0 grade point average in college. Along with his bachelors, Jones finished a masters in accounting over the last four years. As a youth, he was a master at the violin. Maybe he'll put some of those violin skills on display during rookie night in training camp next August.
"No, I don't to play the violin any more," Jones said. "I played when I was kid, but I haven't played in a long time. I have some vocals in me so I'll probably sing a nice song for them."
If future teammates try and rag on Jones for being nerdy, he has a nice trump card in a set of championship rings from his college days.
"Yeah I'm not sure those will go over so well," Jones said. "A lot of them probably played in the SEC so I probably will hold those back for awhile."
With the progress of his rehab, the lisfranc injury shouldn't be holding Jones back beyond a few more weeks.