The myth of college players being "pro-ready" because of the system in which they played in college is dispelled by the rookie season of Steelers OLB Jarvis Jones. He now has real experience, which can only come in the NFL.
Growth is when rare occurrences become routine and common.
Progress is the gap of time between positive events narrows.
There's a process involved with achieving that growth. The trajectory is measured in some combination of the aforementioned checkpoints. Less time between what once was rare, but now borders on the expected. Steelers outside linebacker Jarvis Jones is backward and reversed from modus operendi of the Steelers' process.
Outside linebackers are usually drafted in the middle to late rounds of the draft, and developed over time. Jones was on the field in Week 1, playing a healthy amount of snaps (30). For comparison's sake, Jason Worilds, the team's second round pick in the 2010 Draft, played 46 snaps all season. LaMarr Woodley, a second-round pick in 2007, played eight snaps in the opener that year.
Jones was the recipient of praise from armchair quarterbacks all across Steeler Nation after the team's Week 1 loss to Tennessee. He played 30 snaps, he made two tackles-for-loss and looked like he belonged. Worilds, his counterpart at the left outside linebacker position, produced no splash plays, thus confirming the offseason notion of many Worilds was playing his final year in Pittsburgh and Jones and Woodley would continue as the team's edge pass rushers for as long as they could stay on the field.
Everything else on the team was bleak. One of the poorest offensive performances the Steelers had seen in years took more of the blame, but the positive resonance was Jones' performance in his first NFL game. He was sharp, he was instinctive. He was the playmaker the Steelers' defense desperately needed.
He would go another 14 games before recording another tackle for loss, notching his first sack not in Week 2, but in Week 11, having run down Bills rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel in garbage time of an eventual 23-10 win over Buffalo. Sacks aren't tackles-for-loss, and he broke his 14-game streak in the season finale against a listless Browns team that would see its head coach fired just minutes after Pittsburgh's 20-7 win.
The huge gap between tackles-for-loss and the rarity of sacks produced by Jones suggested growth was stagnant and progress was limited. Such is the life for rookies in the NFL, even ones as highly touted as Jones was coming out of the University of Georgia with the 17th overall pick.
The process was shunned by fans after his Week 1 performance. There was no point in measuring growth or progress, he jumped immediately into "expected" territory. Why? Mostly because of the misconception that playing in a certain defense in college should make a player more "pro-ready."
It's a laughably absurd notion. So he ran the same defense in college. The bulk of the snaps he ran in that defense were in practice, and they were probably run against true freshman, just months removed from their senior Prom. He faced three-time All Pro left tackle Michael Roos in the Steelers' opener, a legitimate man over the boys Jones had faced in his career.
There is no college that shines to an outstanding degree over everyone else in terms of developing players there who can step on an NFL field in Week 1 and dominate as if they've belonged there years earlier. There are players capable of doing this, but it's certainly not the norm. Jones was no different than that. The lack of growth should have been anticipated; the progress was going to come slowly.
Somewhere in all of this, what happened was the fact Jones got on the field was credited more to Jones' alleged ability and less on the fact the team just simply didn't have the depth to stash Jones on special teams for the year, allowing the standard process to take its course. Jones, like a depleted military in heavy combat, was forced to the front lines, ready or not.
Because of that, the anticipated production never materialized. Whatever it was that put him in position to make two tackles-for-loss in Week 1 never returned. We saw flashes of it, like the play toward the end of the Steelers' 19-6 win over the New York Jets. A miscommunication of some type occurred between Jets LT D'Brickashaw Ferguson and the tight end, leaving Jones unblocked. He exploded toward quarterback Geno Smith, seeing an opportunity to make a play. Smith, another rookie, threw an inspired pass toward the left side of the field that was intercepted by Lawrence Timmons.
He was credited with a quarterback hit, one of only two given to him by Pro Football Focus, a football play evaluation site. He had 25 hurries on the year (hits and sacks are not counted as hurries), and the site gave him a pass rushing productivity score of 6.9 (a formula measuring hurries, hits and sacks), good for 25th in the NFL.
Something to remember, too, Jones had 18 pass rushes from the defensive left side, and four of his 25 hurries came from there. That gives him a pass rushing productivity score of 16.7, the highest in the NFL. Certainly, it's not valid considering how small the sample size is, but it's interesting nonetheless, considering the ballyhoo stirred up over who should play on the left, Worilds or Woodley, last season.
Perhaps Woodley or Worilds would have had a better score than that had their rookie years had they seen the field more often. We won't know. Woodley made "the leap" in his second year while Worilds continued to languish on the bench.
A huge storyline heading into the 2014 season will be the Steelers' defense's ability to hit the quarterback. A big part of that will be whether Jones is able to make exceptional plays routinely. It'll come down to whether he can close the gap between those routinely exceptional plays.
If he does, it will be because of the Steelers' standard process. He's had a year in a pro system, and that system does not involve the SEC, true freshmen or myths about colleges being able to simulate an NFL-level practice.