DE Marcus Jones, foreground, warmed up for his first practice as a starter on Monday
He is perhaps the most physically imposing player in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' locker room, a chiseled 6-foot-5 man with long arms, enormous hands and mountains of muscle. You can't miss him.
Yet, somehow, the Bucs almost lost him.
In February of 1999, the 30 existing NFL teams had to put together a list of unprotected players, from which the expansion Cleveland Browns could select to form the first foundation of their teams. The Bucs included Marcus Jones, then a three-year veteran with 32 career tackles and one sack, on their list.
Cleveland didn't bite, perhaps because Jones was still sporting the contract given to him as a first-round draft choice in 1996. The Bucs thus held onto Jones and, rather than release him as many thought would occur next, converted him from defensive tackle to defensive end and gave him another shot.
It was the best roster non-decision the Buccaneers have made in years.
To further emphasize that, Tampa Bay moved Jones into the starting lineup at right defensive end on Monday. It was the culmination of a long journey for Jones, who saw his faith rocked by ankle injuries in 1997 but had his determination restored in a big way in '99. Though not a starter during the 1999 season, he was one of the team's most effective defensive linemen, and when he continued in that fashion this summer, the decision was inevitable.
"I think it just shows everyone that every year is a new year," said Dungy, confirming the move. "Everybody has an opportunity no matter when it comes or how it comes. Marcus had an opportunity and took advantage of it beginning last year. I think we finally found the right position for him, his work habits picked up, and the combination of the two…he's had a great year and a half."
That doesn't mean this move was a lock for Jones, and he was prepared for whatever role he was to be placed in. Jones elevation to the starting lineup comes over Steve White, who made a similar move past Regan Upshaw last August. In this case, however, White will remain heavily involved in the rotation, as his play has not dropped off, either.
"I sat up last night thinking about it," said Jones. "Whatever the decision was, I knew it was going to be best for the team. Steve and I are two different players. He's much more of a technician. He does everything right, while I'll go out there and do some things right and then I'll mess up.
"The level of play right now with the defensive line…anybody can step up right now. We're all competitors."
The two formed a powerful combination last year. Jones finished second on the team with 7.0 sacks, despite starting only four games, and his 36 tackles were more than he had posted in his first three seasons, combined. White burst out of the gate strong but was slowed by his own ankle injuries and wasn't at full strength until the last few weeks of the season. When he finally returned to full health, he was dominant over the Bucs' last three contests, including playoffs, notching 16 tackles, three sacks, one interception, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and one interception. Those two, plus the ever-productive Chidi Ahanotu on the left side will continue to form an imposing trio.
"Steve's a great competitor," said Jones. "I learn so much from Steve every day. There's nothing he doesn't know about an offense we play, and there's nothing he doesn't know about our defense. At some times, I feel like he's a teacher, because he knows everything about everything. He's one of those kinds of guys. I'm still learning from him, and he's learning from me, so it works both ways."
There was some thought that Jones would remain in the same role he filled in 1999, because he is the best prepared of the three to play on both the right and left side. However, Dungy believes he can still fill that role while starting.
"It probably won't be a lot of difference in playing time," said Dungy, "but he'll start the game and then flip over to the left side when Steve comes in. All those guys will play. We won't do it a whole lot differently, but I think guys take pride in being a starter and he had a great training camp."
Jones realizes that it's not a great inflation in his playing time, but he does believe it can be significant. "It's not much, because we were pretty much splitting the time anyway," said Jones. "I'd say probably about 10-15 extra snaps. Those 10-15 extra snaps can make a world of difference."
Jones expects the extra playing time to give him more of an opportunity to make significant plays, but it might have just as much of an impact on him mentally. After a promising but unspectacular rookie season in which he played in all 16 games, started three and had 25 tackles and one sack, Jones limped through a disastrous '97. He played in just six games in that season and had only one tackle, not revealing to the media until near the end of the campaign that he had been suffering from serious shin splints in each ankle. During the following season, there was some effort to switch him to defensive end, but he ended up backing up inside again and seeing sparse playing time.
Right from the start during the '99 offseason, however, he took to his new role. Much in the manner that the Bucs recently parted ways with DT Brad Culpepper because not only Anthony McFarland but also James Cannida were due more playing time, the team was willing to trade Upshaw last August because both White and Jones were on the verge of bigger things. Jones stepped through that opening and hasn't looked back since. On Monday, he seemed like a man with a weight off his shoulders.
"It's a blessing," said Jones. "You work hard, and I guess the route I took was probably the hardest way to do it. Just to come back from all the adversity that was thrown at me made me a stronger person and a wiser person."
And, as of Monday, a starter.