(Editor’s note: This story is part of The Star’s annual football preview, which will appear in three special sections in the Sunday, Aug. 28 print edition and also on KansasCity.com and The Star’s Red Zone Extra app.)
Throughout training camp in St. Joseph, Chiefs players signed jerseys, pennants, helmets — anything put in front of them by fans who hung around through practice. This occurred dutifully, politely, and the crowds flocking for autographs seemed grateful and satisfied.
Except when rookie Chris Jones signed.
Then, the fans and Jones exchanged smiles and laughs. Away from his position as defensive end, Jones, a big man with a big personality, has that effect on people.
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“Every moment of my life, even when it’s going bad, I try to put a smile on my face,” Jones said. “Somewhere in this country, someone has it way worse than I do. I’m out here playing football. I can’t be doing too bad.”
Jones is doing rather well, actually. The Chiefs’ first selection in April’s NFL Draft smiled plenty that night, too, after hearing his name called in the second round. Jones pulled on a Chiefs baseball cap, danced onto the stage and wrapped NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in a massivebear hug.
“That’s who I am,” Jones said.
That’s who he has always been, at least when it comes to his disposition.
“Y’all are getting a people person,” said A.J. Jefferson, a senior linebacker at Mississippi State and Jones’ teammate last season. “You cannot be in the meeting room and be sad when Chris Jones is there because he’s going to make everyone smile.”
So far, Jones is making his coaches smile, and that’s the most important thing. As the Chiefs move closer to their Sept. 11 opener, Jones is solidifying himself in the Chiefs’ interior-line rotation.
The starting group of nose tackle Dontari Poe and ends Jaye Howard and Allen Bailey has had an outstanding preseason, and the group rates as one of the team’s strengths entering a season in which a playoff berth is expected.
But with his athletic, powerful 6-foot-6, 310-pound frame, Jones could provide something the Chiefs specifically seek: a pocket-collapsing lineman. The importance of this quality has risen with the injuries to outside linebackers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston.
Hali is expected to play in the Chiefs’ season opener. The status of Houston is uncertain, and his return could be weeks or months away. The Chiefs will be looking at multiple schemes to pressure the quarterback, and Jones could figure into those plans, bringing a skill-set uncommon for a player his size.
“He’s a big man, but he has really good quickness,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “He can get through small areas, which is impressive. He’s got a sense of when to get a hand up when the quarterback is about ready to throw, which is a real gift.”
Rarely in camp did a workout pass without head coach Andy Reid, Sutton or defensive-line coach Britt Reid lauding Jones.
Not bad for an athlete who thought his future was in basketball.
“Oh, absolutely, I was going to play basketball,” Jones said. “I thought I could last 25 or 30 years playing basketball. I really preferred it over football.”
Jones grew up devoting most of his energy to hoops, not football.
“I was a heck of a basketball player,” he said.
Jones averaged 14.8 points for Houston (Miss.) High as a junior. The year before, he was a student at Nettleton High, some 30 miles away. Jones went out for football there but said he quit before the season started. It was the second false start of his career; he backed out of football in junior high because the coaches wanted him to play offensive line.
“The football coaches saw him, all that size, and saw there was something they could work with,” said Stacey Parker, Houston’s mayor. “I just remember him showing up and thinking, ‘Man, this kid’s big.’ Got a baby face and there wasn’t nothing toned about him. Still, that size, and he could move.”
After sitting out Houston High’s first five games under transfer rules, Jones suited up for the Hilltoppers and through sheer size and talent averaged about 10 tackles and a sack per game the rest of the year.
The stats are accurate. Parker kept the defensive numbers for the team.
“He’d come off the field and say, ‘Did you get that tackle? Who did you gave that tackle to?’ ” Parker said. “I told him later when he was being recruited not to forget me. I could have done some things with those numbers.”
That summer, Jones worked hard on an approach that until then had entailed little more than bull-rushing smaller opponents. And he started to get noticed. Mississippi State was the first major school to show interest, and that interest only intensified during Jones’ senior season — a season that would end in the state playoffs and produce the school’s first postseason victory.
Jones committed to the Bulldogs in June 2012, before his senior year. But that didn’t stop others, including Mississippi, from continuing to recruit him.
To underscore Mississippi State’s desire, coach Dan Mullen arrived at Houston one day in a helicopter.
“That was pretty cool,” Parker said. “Doesn’t happen every day here.”
The drip of recruiting became an all-out gusher after Jones’ senior season. Jones was chosen MVP of the Mississippi-Alabama all-star game, which led to an invitation to the Under Armour All-America Game in St. Petersburg, Fla. He was jaw-dropping good in workouts, better some said than the nation’s top recruit, Robert Nkemdiche, also from Mississippi and an Ole Miss signee.
Jones dominated the nation’s top offensive-line prospects, and suddenly, the likes of Alabama, Florida and others showed major interest. He had risen from a mostly unknown high school player to a top prospect in a year.
“I went from a nobody to a five-star in one game,” Jones said.
But Jones remained true to the school that was there from the beginning, and before a signing-ceremony crowd in the school cafeteria picked up the hat of Mississippi State, leaving Ole Miss’ hat on the table.
“I was true to my word,” Jones said. “I feel like a word is what a man has. I committed to Mississippi State, so I stuck with it.”
Houston, Miss., population 3,700, was thrilled.
“We kind of lead toward Mississippi State, and we don’t get many SEC guys from here,” Parker said.
Jones made an impact as a Mississippi State freshman, with seven tackles for loss, and made honorable-mention all-conference.
“He was a wrecking ball for us,” said Mississippi State linebacker Richie Brown.
But Jones’ numbers dropped the next year. He didn’t start, and a Mississippi State coach said Jones was “embarrassed” by the performance. The season left some questioning Jones’ desire to play. In an interview before Jones’ junior season, Mullen said Jones’ game needed more urgency, and he needed to “play like a big-time player.”
Jones remembers seeing plenty of double-team blocks that season; as a freshman, he’d seen few. He and the Bulldogs would have to make adjustments for 2015, and like his high school career, Jones made his final season of college his best.
Statistically, Jones was good, not great, with 7 1/2 tackles for loss and 2 1/2 sacks. He made no All-SEC teams. But Pro Football Focus, an analytics website that breaks down pro and college football film, selected Jones as a second-team All-American.
Once again, the stock of Jones, while still largely unknown to the public, was rising. Nearing the NFL Draft, some projections had him going late in the first round. But the first night passed without Jones hearing his name, or the Chiefs making a selection.
General manager John Dorsey had traded the Chiefs’ first-round pick, No. 28 overall, to San Francisco in exchange for the 49ers’ second-round pick, No. 37 overall. Jones did not make a predraft visit to Kansas City. But there he was, six selections into the second round, bouncing on stage in a Chiefs hat and zeroing in on Goodell for that bear hug.
“I wanted to go first round, but this gives you an edge,” Jones said. “It makes you want to go out and prove everybody wrong.”
Jones’ take on not hearing his name called the first night was stronger the day after he was selected. He returned home to Houston for an impromptu parade through town along Highway 8 and told a Tupelo, Miss., television station that his selection “was about damn time.”
He has heard the talk about his motor, about how it didn’t rev on every play while in college. The motor question was tossed his way a few times during training camp, and a smile accompanied his every response.
“People are going to have their opinions,” Jones said. “I just push myself every day.”
This hasn’t been an issue with the Chiefs. Perhaps professionalism is learned through sitting in a meeting room with veterans such as Poe, Howard and Bailey. Jones clearly has been humbled. At training camp, he carried out the rookie chore of toting teammates’ helmets and shoulder pads off the field.
“People did it before me,” Jones said. “I’m not the first, I won’t be the last. It’s part of the process.”
Such moments are humbling for a player the Chiefs think possesses a load of potential. Jones is unlikely to start, but he’s set to figure prominently into their plans this season.
And before he has taken a regular-season snap, Jones is close to folk-hero status in his hometown.
He won’t be the first man from Houston High to take an NFL snap. Tommy Parks appeared in one game as a punter for the Jets in 2001.
But Jones has the opportunity to make a great impact.
“The world has changed for him,” Parker said. “On one of those interviews he did at the draft, he said he was from Houston, Miss. That’s was a proud moment for us.”