GREEN BAY — Aaron Rodgers swore he saw Josh Jones at practice Tuesday.
Not on the field, of course. Jones, the Green Bay Packers’ third-year safety and former second-round pick, is skipping the team’s voluntary organized team activity practices and wants to be traded — as first reported by ESPN — after the team added one high-priced safety (Adrian Amos) in free agency and took a second (Darnell Savage) in the first round of last month’s NFL draft.
No, Rodgers said, he saw Jones among the railbirds outside the chain-link fence that encompasses Clarke Hinkle Field.
“I think he was at practice,” Rodgers said with a smile after the second OTA session of the offseason — and first that was open to the public and the media. “There was a guy that looked like him at practice outside the fence. Seriously.”
Rodgers’ eyes deceived him, though, as Jones confirmed in a Twitter direct message he was in Florida, where he had trained all offseason before reporting to Green Bay on April 8 for the offseason program. He took part in the team’s bonus minicamp April 23-25 but went back to Florida shortly thereafter.
But Jones did receive text messages from several teammates who, like Rodgers, thought they saw him.
Despite the case of mistaken identity, when Jones will return to Green Bay remains unclear. And his decision to request a trade may not simply be because the team signed Amos or drafted Savage with the second of their two first-round picks (No. 21 overall).
Rather, a source said, Jones feels that after the way last season played out and with the team’s offseason additions, he would be better off with a fresh start elsewhere. The additions of Amos and Savage are merely evidence that he’s not in the Packers’ plans.
“Competing is not an issue. I have been competing since Day 1, ever since I’ve stepped on the field,” Jones said. “I just want to play. I love playing. I’m passionate about this.
“Anybody who’s been around me knows I love this game. I’ve been doing this since I was 8 years old. But you have a short window in the NFL. I’m 24 years old. I know I can be a starter in this league. Given the right situation, I know what I can do.”
Jones, the 61st overall pick in the 2017 draft, has started 12 games over his first two NFL seasons, and saw his most extensive action as a rookie, when he played in all 16 games (seven starts) and finished with 71 tackles, two sacks, an interception and seven pass breakups while playing 731 snaps at safety and at a hybrid safety/linebacker position.
Last year, though, Jones’ role on the Packers became murky, and the team opened the season with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Kentrell Brice, a former undrafted free agent, as their starters at safety. Jones, meanwhile, was sidelined with an ankle injury for the first three games.
But even after he was medically cleared to play and Clinton-Dix was shipped to the Washington Redskins for a fourth-round draft pick at the October trade deadline — a pick the Packers subsequently used in their trade up to draft Savage — Jones’ action was limited. And in the wake of the Clinton-Dix trade, defensive coordinator Mike Pettine and then-coach Mike McCarthy opted to move veteran cornerback Tramon Williams to safety instead of moving Jones into the starting lineup.
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Until he played 51 snaps at New England on Nov. 4, Jones had played just four defensive snaps in the Packers’ first seven games. He started the following week at Seattle and finished the season having started five games and played 501 snaps, registering 55 tackles, one sack, no interceptions and two pass breakups.
“Put it like this: I haven’t hit any type of ceiling. I haven’t even played enough football to do that,” Jones said. “People haven’t seen what I can really do. Nobody has seen what I can really do. And a lot of people will be surprised. A lot of people, they want to write you off after less than 24 months of being in the NFL. This is a marathon. It ain’t a sprint.”
Now, though, Jones is hoping to run that race elsewhere.
“A comma does not mean a period,” Jones said. “It may not work out at one spot, but that doesn’t mean it won’t work out somewhere else. It’s all about the right fit. Sometimes all a person needs is a change of scenery.”
During Tuesday’s open practice, the Packers’ starting defense lined up with Savage and Amos, the ex-Chicago Bears starter who signed a four-year, $36 million free-agent deal in March, at safety.
But without Jones, the Packers’ safety depth is paper thin. The second and third defensive units included Raven Greene, who made the team as an undrafted rookie free agent, and a group of little-known safeties (Mike Tyson, Tray Matthews and ex-University of Wisconsin defensive back Natrell Jamerson) in the back end.
“We love Josh. He’s been a great addition to our locker room and made some great plays on the field for us. But he’s got to take care of himself right now,” Rodgers said. “If that’s the way he wants to go, then I wish him well and enjoyed the time with him. Hopefully, he comes back in here and competes and we get to see him.”
The Packers cannot fine Jones because OTAs are voluntary, though strongly encouraged. Jones could be fined if he skips the June 11-13 mandatory minicamp, though it’s unclear if Jones would do that. Last year, Clinton-Dix skipped most of OTAs while finishing his classwork at the University of Alabama while also showing his unhappiness with not getting a long-term contract extension.
“I have not talked to him,” coach Matt LaFleur said of Jones. “Honestly, that’s something that I’m going to let Gutey (Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst) handle, and we’ll go from there.”
Asked if he’s concerned about Jones missing the mandatory minicamp, LaFleur said: “Right now, I’m just going to focus on the guys that are here. I guess we’ll cross that bridge when it comes.”
Savage, meanwhile, took a ton of snaps at free safety after making a good first impression at the post-draft rookie camp earlier this month.
“He’s a smart guy. We’re really excited about him,” LaFleur said. “It’s still early, but he showed some good stuff in the rookie minicamp and I think (during Monday’s first OTA practice) he showed some good stuff. We’ll just take it day-by-day and we’ll where it ends up. But certainly we’re very excited about him.”