How D.J. Jones bootstrapped way to centerpiece of Broncos’ “Dark Side” defense


When D.J. Jones was a senior, he transferred to Wren High School in Piedmont, S.C., coming from a smaller program in the hopes of increasing his recruiting profile. One game into the season, coach Jeff Tate wasn’t pleased with his team’s slow start.

Tate challenged Jones to prove his status as playmaker. The response by the Broncos’ nose tackle — who signed a three-year, $30 million contract this offseason to be a centerpiece of Denver’s defensive front — accurately sums up Jones’ value as a run-stuffer both then and now.

“They were running a counter on us, and they pulled the guard, and D.J. tackled the guard and the running back at the same time, picked ’em both up like it was nothing,” Tate recalled. “The running back was like 225 pounds, the guard was like 300 pounds. And as he picks ’em both up and goes to throw them down, the ball comes out, and he recovers it.

“He came to the sideline and says, ‘You don’t have to worry about it anymore coach, I got you.’ He’s been that good before and ever since, and against the best competition, D.J. would have his best games. That’s why he’s in the NFL, that’s why he stayed there. This guy didn’t get there by accident.”

No accident, but he took a winding and unusual road nonetheless.

Three high schools, then junior college, then college football’s biggest stage for two seasons in the SEC at Ole Miss before the 49ers drafted Jones in the sixth round in 2017. He bootstrapped his way up the 49ers’ depth chart over his first couple of seasons before becoming a starter for three years.

Now with the Broncos as one of the primary pillars of the “Dark Side” defense, Jones is looking to burnish a reputation he earned with the 49ers. Last year, Jones helped San Francisco reach the NFC Championship with a banner season, starting all 17 games, with two sacks, two forced fumbles and a career-high 56 tackles.

“In San Francisco, I proved I’m one of the best run stoppers in the game,” Jones said. “My goal this year? To win. That’s why I embrace the ‘Dark Side’ as a mentality, as a way of life. I want to show these guys on the defense the way, and just let them know that it’s possible to get back (to where the Broncos once were).”

In that 2021 playoff run for the 49ers, Broncos defensive line coach Marcus Dixon developed a keen understanding of Jones’ impact on the line of scrimmage. Dixon, then an assistant defensive line coach for the eventual champion Rams, studied Jones’ play ahead of the teams’ showdown in the NFC title game, won 20-17 by Los Angeles.

Jones was all over the tape with a sack, a tackle, a tackle for loss and a quarterback hit in the 49ers’ wild-card win over Dallas. Then he had four tackles in the divisional win over Green Bay. He followed that up with three tackles and a quarterback hit in the loss to Los Angeles.

“(He’s) explosive. Relentless. Strong. Run-stopper. Disruptive. All of those,” Dixon said. “I had a bird’s eye view from the coaches’ box and it felt like every time, 93 (Jones’ number with the 49ers) was making a play.”


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