Jones relishes new role

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CHARLOTTE – The day after the Panthers' final preseason game in 2012, Carolina looked to boost its special teams units by trading for Colin Jones.

Jones didn't disappoint, leading the team with 21 special teams tackles over the next two seasons. In that same period, the safety recorded just four tackles on defense.

Jones didn't make as many plays on special teams this past season, but there was a good reason for it.

He was busy becoming a difference maker on defense.

"It was definitely a lot of fun playing a lot more snaps on defense," said Jones, who recorded 20 tackles in the regular season and added eight more in the postseason as the Panthers' nickel corner. "Anytime you're asked to increase your role, I think it's a positive."

The 2014 season started much like the previous two for Jones, but after rookie Bene Benwikere – who had been playing the nickel role – suffered a significant ankle injury in Week 5, Carolina sought a replacement. After trying veteran Charles Godfrey for a couple of weeks without success, they re-signed James Dockery while quietly seeing what Jones could do in practice.

To the surprise of many, Jones started at nickel in Week 8 against Seattle, and he held the role the rest of the season. When Benwikere returned to action in Week 13, he did so as an outside corner.

"I think I got better as the season progressed," Jones said. "I still have things to learn, and that comes with time and reps. But I feel like I did pretty well overall.

It helped that the role wasn't entirely unfamiliar to Jones. He was a standout special teams performer at Texas Christian but also played a role on defense, particularly late in his career. As a senior in 2010, Jones was a second-team All-Mountain West Conference selection after recording 80 tackles in the Horned Frogs' 4-2-5 defense.

In 2014, the Panthers featured five defensive backs more often than they featured three linebackers, so Jones reprised his role.

"We ran a 4-2-5 at TCU, and I was in the box a lot. What they were asking me to do here was real similar to that, with a little more man coverage responsibilities," Jones said. "But being close to the line of scrimmage, I was already comfortable with that. It made it a lot of fun."

In his second game in the new role, Carolina tried to capitalize on the blazing speed that made Jones a special teams standout. Versus New Orleans, defensive coordinator Sean McDermott featured Jones on a blitz.

The Saints' upback upended Jones with a textbook block, but it wasn't enough to derail him. Jones quickly got to his feet and reached Drew Brees for his first career sack.

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"The play where he got up after the blitz after being cut-blocked – that's who we are," McDermott said. "You give yourself a chance when you do things like that."

The play was Jones' most eye-popping one of the season, but he didn't consider it his top moment. That was still to come, and it had nothing to do with Jones himself.

"That was a pretty cool moment, but winning the playoff game here - that was pretty exciting," Jones said. "It had been since my rookie year (with the San Francisco 49ers) that I had won a playoff game. That was fun in front of the home crowd.

"We had some tough times in the middle of the season, but we stayed together. We continued to fight when nobody gave us a chance, and we continued to progress and get better and stay strong."

Jones said the Panthers really "enjoyed the ride" down the stretch, and he enjoyed his increased role. Jones didn't play as prominent a role on special teams after becoming a defensive regular, and time will tell what his role will be next season.

But it's good to have options.

"Colin Jones has been a special teams ace," head coach Ron Rivera said, "but he's also a skilled football player."

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