TEMPE, Ariz. — Sitting in Chandler Jones‘ cabinet this summer were the leftover Little Debbie snacks that he never got to.
Most, however, were gone. The ones that remained on the shelf eventually went stale, but were a memory of a time when it was OK to snack at all hours of the night. They were also a reminder of the temptation Jones steers clear of these days.
Jones, who had a sack on Sunday in the Arizona Cardinals‘ first win of the season to give him four in five games, has had to remake his body twice in the past two years. But it hasn’t slowed him down. His 34 sacks since 2017 and his 57.5 sacks since 2015 are the most in the NFL.
“He’s just relentless and then the defense feeds off that,” Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury said.
“Relentless” regardless of his weight. Last season, it wasn’t just OK for Jones to stuff his face with snack cakes. It was, to a degree, necessary.
When former Cardinals coach Steve Wilks moved Jones from outside linebacker to defensive end in his 4-3 scheme last season, Jones needed to bulk up from the 265 pounds he weighed at the time. He needed calories. Lots of them. And quickly.
It was time to snack. That meant night-time Little Debbie snacks with a glass of milk.
“I’m not saying it was bad weight but there’s times where I said, ‘Yeah, I can eat whatever. I can be heavy,'” Jones told ESPN.
Jones figured out ways to gain weight quickly. He changed his lifting routine to low reps, heavy weight, and he ate late. He started eating five to six meals a day. He snacked between every meal, munching on nuts and granola whenever he had time.
It may sound like the world’s best diet, but Jones said it wasn’t easy.
“A lot of times I would feel a little nauseous just trying to get food down,” he said. “It was a task every day to get a certain amount of calories.”
Gaining weight was a part-time job. Jones had to consciously work at it.
He doesn’t know exactly how many calories he consumed every day, just that it was a lot and his approach worked. He played last season at 280 pounds, giving him the bulk necessary to set the edge as a defensive end and not get pushed off the ball. Despite the change in body composition and carrying about 15 more pounds than he was typically used to, Jones still managed 13 sacks, the second most of his career.
When Wilks got fired after the 2018 season ended, the Cardinals hired Kingsbury and he hired defensive coordinator Vance Joseph. The defense returned to a 3-4 and Jones went back to outside linebacker. One year after purposely bulking up, Jones now had to cut weight.
Kingsbury and Joseph had a suggested weight for Jones, the pass-rusher said, but they left it up to him to find the weight he was most comfortable playing at. He traded in nights with Little Debbie for cold pressed juices, pasta-heavy lunches after practices and healthy dinners with a protein — usually chicken — and vegetables. He dropped 15 pounds quickly and got down to 265 pounds, his current playing weight.
It was easy to kick sugar and shed that weight, Jones said, even though he cheats every so often.
“Sugar is very addicting,” he said. “Sugar is almost a drug. But how did my body react? I don’t know. I’m very disciplined when it comes to things like that.”
When it comes to work, Jones doesn’t mess around. He didn’t miss one day of offseason weight training, workouts or practice, linebackers coach Bill Davis said.
Davis, who’s coached in the NFL for 24 of the last 27 years, said in his experience those are the players who see the fruits of their labor pay off during the season.
“I just know that me playing outside linebacker, I will have to be more lighter because I’m dropping into coverage and standing up and being more agile,” Jones said. “I have to be more agile. So, it comes to me also being a professional, too. The coaches, they kind of give you weight to be at but on top of that I know that I’m not going to be 280 coming into training camp playing outside linebacker. That’s not realistic or I’m going got set myself up for failure. So, just me understanding where I am and who I am and what do I play best at.”
Jones said his body reacted well to the quick weight loss because he has a naturally smaller and leaner frame. During the season he said he can lose another 10 pounds just through the rigors of practices and games.
Jones has shown it doesn’t matter how much he weighs or how much his body changed, he can still be productive. Playing at 265 in 2017, he had 17 sacks. A year later, 15 pounds heavier, he had 13. Through five games this season, back down to 265, he has four.
“It’s a great credit to him and really his athleticism,” Davis said. “… It just shows you what kind of an athlete he is.”
What impresses Davis more than the weight loss, however, is Jones’ football IQ. Going from outside linebacker to defensive end and back to outside linebacker in different schemes in three consecutive years isn’t easy.
“It’s a whole different world, whole different set of rules,” Davis said of outside linebacker and defensive end. “The football IQ that he’s shown about being able to go in and out, that’s what stops a lot people from doing it. Maybe they can do it physically but mentally, they can’t.”
In addition to his four sacks, Jones has four quarterback hits, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and 12 tackles.
Just the idea of gaining that much weight — forget playing at that high of a level — has left Cardinals inside linebacker Jordan Hicks shaking his head.
“For guys in the NFL, three pounds can feel like a lot of weight,” Hicks said. “I know guys are particular about where they are and how their body feels accordingly.
“It’s a lot. It’s a lot of weight. I can’t gain 15 to 20 pounds right now. And If I did, I’d feel terrible.”