Early in his first preseason game, Nazair Jones looked across the field at the Los Angeles Chargers offense and allowed himself a very brief moment to reflect on how far he has come.
"I was looking across the field and seeing Philip Rivers, other guys who are established in the NFL, guys like Antonio Gates," Jones said. "So I was like, 'Wow, I'm really out here.' At the same time I've got a job to do, so I marvel in the journey, but I'm also focused on getting the job done."
That journey Jones speaks of includes, most notably, a time in high school when a rare disease called Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS) led to temporary paralysis in his legs. Jones lost 40 pounds, had to relearn to walk, and celebrated his 16th birthday in a Chapel Hill, North Carolina hospital.
"It was a long road," Jones said in April after the Seahawks selected him in the third round of the draft. "It took almost two months for me to even get a diagnosis. Complex Regional Pain Syndrome is so different, and it is so uncommon, that some of my doctors had never heard of it and had never diagnosed anyone with it. It took me a long time to do that, but it wasn't until my redshirt freshman year at North Carolina where I felt back to 100 percent. I played my senior season football, basketball and track, still recovering, but just trying my best."
But Jones' comeback from a rare disease, a unique and inspiring feel-good story, isn't what the Seahawks are so excited about when it comes to the rookie defensive lineman from North Carolina. If Jones were just having a cup of coffee, so to speak, at an NFL training camp, it'd still be a remarkable story, but Jones has been a lot more than that in his first month with the Seahawks; he has been one of their best rookies, and someone who very much looks like he can play a significant role on defense this season.
In that opener at Los Angeles, Jones played 60 percent of the defensive snaps, the most on the team, and had four tackles, one for a loss, a quarterback hit and one pass defensed, a tipped ball at the line of scrimmage that set up a Tylor Harris interception. Perhaps more impressive than that play that led to a turnover, at least when it comes to coaches evaluating a young player, was the effort Jones showed chasing down a screen pass to make a tackle 14 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.
Jones backed up that impressive first preseason game with another strong outing in last weekend's win over the Minnesota Vikings, a game that included a half sack split with Kache Palacio, as well as pressure that contributed to an incomplete pass two plays earlier.
"We're really excited about him," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said after Seattle's first preseason game. "He played end and a little bit inside. He showed good effort, he had a great play chasing the screen down that we were really fired up about, because we are trying to teach him the effort that matches our style of play. He's very smart and that was a great first impression for him to make for us, and we have very high hopes. We are heading into the rest of these games and we'll see how far we can take him."
Jones wasn't surprised to know that his coach brought up a hustle play when assessing his game. Not that it was an issue for him before, but he's really learning at the NFL level how big of an influence the Seahawks place on effort.
"It's especially important for the big guys to get out of the stack and show that you want to make the play, show amazing effort," Jones said. "You never know how long you're going to be out there, so it's always got to be maximum effort and big guys getting out of the stack."
Also helping Jones make a good early impression has been a level of versatility that might exceed what the Seahawks were expecting.
Jones was almost exclusively an interior lineman at North Carolina, and when the Seahawks drafted him, Carroll and general manager John Schneider talked about Jones as a big-bodied defensive tackle who could help on early downs. And while Jones has shown the ability to be just that, he has also seen a lot of playing time as a 5-technique defensive end. Jones knows that versatility could be a key to earning playing time on a deep and talented defensive line.
"It's like the sixth man on the basketball team, he can go in and do whatever," Jones said. "If Mike (Bennett) goes down I can play end, if (Ahtyba Rubin) goes down I can play 3-(technique defensive tackle), if Jarran (Reed) goes down I can play nose. I'm just trying to do anything I can to get on the field."
Yet for as encouraging as Jones' start to his rookie season has been, it hasn't been entirely smooth sailing. While in Hawaii to work out with Bennett, Jones came down with heat exhaustion—the result of volunteering at Bennett's youth football camp, it should be noted—and as a result he had to tap out early during a workout with NFL players the next morning. Bennett was hard on Jones—really hard—but Jones knows that it came from a good place, and feels like he's better for it.
"It's great," Jones said. "I definitely need somebody like that on my back, just pushing me. If I'm the only one pushing myself, I'll hit my limits earlier, but if I've got my teammates pushing me, who knows what my end product could be. It's great having him on my back like that. I'd rather have him on my back than not talking to me at all."
As Jones sat there exhausted, a towel covering his head during that July workout in Honolulu, Bennett looked at the rookie and said, "Don't quit on me in a game."
Jones responded, "That won't be a problem."
It's still very early in Jones career, but so far, neither his play nor his effort has been anything close to a problem.
"He has done very well," Carroll said during training camp. "Nazair has been really attentive, he's a big mobile guy. He has got a lot of good positives about him… We are really pleased with his moving and his strength, so Johnny got us a good guy, just got to see where he fits in."
The best photos from the Seahawks' Wednesday practice at Virginia Mason Athletic Center in preparation for Friday night's preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs.