ATHENS, Ga. -- Jarvis Jones fully understood the stakes involved when representatives of all 32 NFL teams showed up Thursday morning to take in the Bulldogs’ pro day.
Having skipped the workouts at last month’s NFL combine, the two-time All-American -- already one of the most highly scrutinized prospects in this year’s draft -- knew he would attract more eyeballs than any of his 16 former teammates who also participated in the workouts.
“When you look at it, right here is one of the biggest interviews right now that I’m going to have in my life,” Jones said.
With temperatures in the mid-30s and a chilly wind present throughout, conditions on Georgia’s practice field were hardly ideal for the timed drills. That makes Jones’ highly average time in the 40-yard dash on Thursday, 4.92 seconds, difficult to compare to those of the combine participants who ran indoors at Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium.
But he insisted afterward that he did not regret refusing to work out in Indianapolis. Jones said he sacrificed much of his pre-combine preparation time visiting doctors who could determine whether there was any neck or spine damage remaining from a 2009 injury he suffered as a freshman at USC.
Once his doctors cleared him to compete, Jones said, he was finally able to focus his attention on preparing for his workouts and position drills with a clear mind.
“I guess a lot of people wanted me to work out at the combine, but at the end of the day, this is important to me,” said Jones, who also completed 20 reps at 225 pounds on the bench press and posted a 30.5-inch vertical leap on Thursday. “I don’t know how they feel about it, but let me take care of myself and do what I’ve got to do to maximize my ability."
The last few months have been a rollercoaster ride for Jones, who led Georgia to back-to-back SEC East championships and led the nation in sacks (14.5), tackles for a loss (24.5) and forced fumbles (seven) as a junior in 2012.
For months, he was the top player on ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr.’s Big Board, but teams’ apparent concerns about Jones health and potential longevity in the NFL created questions as to whether his stock might be slipping.
He and close friend Bacarri Rambo, a first-team All-American safety at Georgia in 2011, have been training together at Tom Shaw’s performance clinic at Disney’s sports complex in Orlando, Fla. -- and Rambo has been alongside Jones over the last few months as whispers about his health grew in volume.
Rambo, who called Jones his “blood brother,” said the criticism has not seemed to phase his teammate.
“He just stays humble, man,” Rambo said. “He learned to accept criticism and he just goes out there and tries to prove everybody wrong. Everybody questioned his neck and his back and all this and that. You’ve got to look, he’s been doing this for two years and he hasn’t had a problem with it, so why are you still questioning him about it?”
USC doctors refused to clear Jones to compete after the injury, prompting him to transfer to Georgia in 2010. He redshirted that fall and played without further incident for the next two seasons. And yet many NFL player personnel execs understandably grew hesitant when word spread that Jones’ had spinal stenosis -- an abnormal narrowing of the spinal canal -- which could shorten his NFL lifespan.
Jones said he has been repeatedly examined since initially suffering the injury and expressed frustration that many critics don’t have a realistic understanding of his condition, particularly after neck and spine specialist Dr. Craig Brigham examined him and said Jones’ injury was not as serious as it once had appeared.
“What the big thing about it, what people don’t know, is I didn’t have a neck injury,” Jones said. “I had a stinger and got an MRI and that’s when they found out I had a narrowing in my spine. There wasn’t a real neck injury. I haven’t had no symptoms, I’ve had about 10 MRIs. Everybody’s seen what they’ve got to see and everybody clearly thinks I’m fine, so all that scrutiny and everything, that’s just motivation for me.”
Kiper still has Jones ranked as the No. 5 prospect on his Big Board and predicted this week that while he didn’t expect a great 40 time from Jones, he otherwise “has great positional value and maintained exceptional production during his time at Georgia. He combines explosiveness, discipline, relentless pass-rushing ability, great intangibles and effort. He also can cover.”
Jones hopes that versatile skillset will help alleviate teams’ concerns about whether he can make it in the pros. Even if Kiper doesn’t have him as the No. 1 player anymore, Jones said Thursday that he still believes he should be atop NFL draft boards. And he hopes his private interviews and workouts in the next month leading up to the draft will convince the teams of that, as well.
“I’ve just got to continue to better my craft and hit these interviews and workouts with these teams and just stay focused and continue to better myself, make the right decisions,” Jones said. “At the end of the day, it’s going to take care of itself. Whoever takes me, whoever takes that chance and chooses me, is going to get a great guy -- a guy that loves this game and is passionate about this game and is willing to sacrifice everything to be great for myself and my team.”