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Starkey: What to do with Jarvis Jones?

| Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016, 8:54 p.m.
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The Steelers' Jarvis Jones has a fifth-year option worth more than $8 million.

His story is not finished. He could be a late bloomer, though it is getting late. He turns 27 next season. He has shown flashes, most encouragingly in this year's playoffs.

Still, using nearly 40 games as evidence, it appears the Steelers were dead wrong about Jarvis Jones.

General manager Kevin Colbert called Jones a “special player” when the Steelers giddily grabbed him with the 17th pick. The team just released James Harrison and was ready to launch its next wave of quarterback-crushing linebackers.

“Really, it was a fun and easy evaluation,” coach Mike Tomlin said of Jones that day.

Colbert's draft-day take: “He plays the run, he chases the ball, and most importantly, he gets after the passer — a highly productive pass rusher in one of the best conferences in the country.”

That was the SEC. This is the AFC. The AFC North, to be precise, and in 15 divisional games, Jones has two sacks. In 36 regular-season games he has five, and never more than one in a game. He remains a part-time player, three years into his career.

That couldn't be what anyone expected, least of all Jones, who set Georgia's single-season sack record with 14½. A conversation we had earlier this season, after the home win against Cleveland, stayed with me.

“Coming in here three years ago, looking back at it now, I thought my career would be totally different from what it is,” Jones said. “But I'm living for today. I'm just trying to take advantage of all my opportunities, man. Just carpe diem.”

How did he imagine his career would be?

“I ain't going to get into that, 'cause it ain't what it is,” Jones said, memorably.

This offseason, the Steelers must decide whether to make an initial commitment to the fifth-year option — the 2017 season — on Jones' contract.

The option will be worth more than $8 million, which sounds daunting, but here's the thing: It's pretty much the equivalent of a high-school athlete's “verbal commitment” to a college. The Steelers can nix it, without financial repercussions, after the 2016 season (more proof that incoming players were the biggest losers in the last CBA negotiations).

So it's really not a difficult decision at all. Pick up the option, see if Jones performs in 2016 and then decide on his future.

As NFL analyst Ross Tucker wrote of “picking up” the fifth-year option after the third year, “It's basically an option to have an option. It gives any of these teams the right to either extend, release or renegotiate with these players (after year four), while having all of the control.”

There is a long-term injury exception, in which the fifth-year salary is guaranteed, but you get the point: Barring catastrophic injury, the Steelers have another season to evaluate Jones.

The good news is that Jones made a big-time play in the wild-card game, forcing an AJ McCarron fumble, and looked disruptive at times in Denver.

Watch long enough, and you'll see bursts of violent abandon in his game. But you wonder if his body type — when I first saw him I wondered where the rest of him was — will allow him to ever beat offensive tackles consistently. Maybe that is why the Steelers dropped him into pass coverage more than Jones would like.

Former Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor recently told me the team likes Jones' play against the run, something Tomlin reiterated Wednesday. Maybe Jones will be a good player but just a different kind than originally projected. It also is fair to point out that he missed nine games in 2014, so next year projects as only his third full season.

“His arrow's pointed up, but it needs to be,” Tomlin said. “He's growing and evolving in all areas, but we expect him to.”

I asked Tomlin if Jones indeed has evolved as a different kind of player than expected.

“He's what we thought,” Tomlin said.

If that were the case, Jones would be preparing for the Pro Bowl instead of coming off another two-sack season.

But that ain't what it is.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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