OXNARD, Calif. - Dallas safety Byron Jones caught bouncing tennis balls and tracked baseballs from the outfield of minor league batting practice during the offseason.
The goal: Improve on the one interception he has produced in two seasons since the Cowboys drafted him late in the first round in 2015 from UConn.
The immediate result: Flashy grabs on consecutive days at training camp, one that counted as an interception and one that didn’t, although it essentially left the same impression despite Jones only getting one foot inbounds.
The former cornerback is intent on catching balls in the secondary, not merely batting them down after Jones tied for the team lead with 10 pass breakups during the 2016 season.
“I think a lot of those times that he’s broken up the pass, if he just had a more aggressive mentality, just put two hands out there and try to catch it, I think he would have had more plays,” said Jeff Heath, Dallas’ other starting safety with the departure of free agents Barry Church (Jacksonville) and J.J. Wilcox (Tampa Bay).
“That’s something we’ve talked about and he knows that. Through the first few practices this training camp, you’ve seen that come alive.”
Two of the biggest attention-getters of the Cowboys’ California camp so far involved Jones - both leaping grabs on the run in the end zone. The second was the one where he got both feet in, and even better for Jones, 2014 All-Pro Dez Bryant was Dak Prescott’s intended target.
“He’s really been working on his catching ability,” Bryant said. “Every day when I came in in the offseason, I’ve seen Byron working, working, working. Just with the tennis balls, throwing them off the wall, turning around and catching them, just little stuff like that.”
Jones wasn’t interested in discussing the details of his offseason work. About the best he could offer was an explanation of why he spent time with the Double-A affiliate of the Texas Rangers in Frisco, where the baseball stadium is less than a mile from the Cowboys’ training facility.
“If you can track a baseball down, should be easy to track a football down,” the reticent Jones said.
The Cowboys were one of six teams with fewer than 10 interceptions last season, finishing with nine. Five of those came from players no longer on the roster after Dallas also let cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne leave as free agents. Church was the only Dallas player with more than one (he had two).
“That’s our No. 1 objective on defense,” secondary coach Joe Baker said. “We graded ourselves as sort of middle of the pack in terms of our turnover production. We expect to be A-plus in that area. We want to crank those numbers up.”
Dallas expects Jones to be in the area for most throws down the field because he’s likely to be the roaming deep safety. And they’re expecting him to put two hands on more of those throws.
“He’s got tremendous athletic ability and what we’d like to see is have that athletic ability turn into more ball production,” Baker said. “His interception (in camp) was just such a great moment when you see sort of your vision come to life on the grass.”
Now the Cowboys hope to see it in the regular season.