LATROBE, Pa. (AP) _ Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Jarvis Jones is tired of fielding questions about his productivity.
Jones has underperformed since the Steelers made him the No. 17 overall pick in 2013. But with free agency and a lucrative contract possibly on the horizon, Jones says he’s ready to put his struggles in the past.
“Every year is motivating,” Jones said. “I’m ready to play football. My head is in the right place, I’m healthy and I’m going to continue to work.”
The Steelers declined to pick up the fifth-year option on the four-year contract Jones signed as the team’s first-round draft choice in 2013. If the Steelers don’t sign Jones to a multi-year extension before the season begins or utilize the franchise tag on him in 2017, he could become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.
Jones’ fate will be determined this season.
“It’s time to play football,” Jones said.
Steelers’ defensive coordinator Keith Butler expects Jones to have the best season of his career because of his contract status.
“He has to have his best year,” Butler said. “He’s in a position where there’s pressure on him in terms of his contract and he’s got to play well. I like him being in that position and I think he’ll be OK if he stays healthy.”
The 26-year-old Jones enters the season serving as a mentor to younger players on the team, while also trying to improve his own game.
“That’s the role I’m in right now,” Jones said. “I have to do my part and I have to help coach show the younger guys as well.
“I have a lot of younger guys watching and learning, picking up the things I’m doing, so for me, it’s all about going out and trying to make it the best day.”
Jones carried a reputation at Georgia for reaching the quarterback, with 28 sacks in 26 games. In three NFL seasons, he has five sacks.
Jones played in 14 games with eight starts as a rookie and struggled through an injury-plagued season in 2014. He appeared in seven games in 2014, making three starts after a wrist injury that eventually required surgery derailed his second season. Jones played 15 games last season.
“I still have a lot of stuff I need to do,” Jones said. “It’s all there for me. I’m going to try to do as much as I can.”
That includes reaching the quarterback more often.
“I don’t care if it’s 10, 15 or 20,” Jones said. “I just want to be productive and make plays.”
Last season, the Steelers defense went from an 18th-ranked unit to one that finished just outside the top 10 in points allowed. The Steelers also finished third with 48 sacks.
The outside linebackers, Jones said, need to step up.
“That’s what we’re here for, is the pass rush,” Jones said. “For us to get pressure and become the defense we really want to be, our outside linebackers have to play a really big part in it.”