A year later, James Jones still can recite his numbers. There were 73 catches with the Oakland Raiders last season. Six touchdowns.
He’d never caught more passes in a single season. Which was especially impressive because he’d never played a season without Aaron Rodgers. Trading an MVP quarterback for Raiders rookie Derek Carr, Jones thought he played pretty well. At the very least, he thought, it was enough production to keep his job.
The Raiders had different plans. Jones, a 31-year-old receiver, didn’t fit new coach Jack Del Rio’s young, rebuilding model. With a contract that included no guaranteed money after the first year, Jones was cut after his lone season on the West Coast.
When the New York Giants cut him at the end of training camp three months later, Jones was in an unenviable position. He was an aging receiver, and the NFL season was starting one week later. But Jones never forget his numbers. There were 73 catches, six touchdowns. Somewhere, he believed, there would be a job offer.
“I never doubted that I could play the game,” Jones said. “It’s just the hand you’re dealt sometimes. New coaches come in, and they get rid of certain guys. You don’t know why. I don’t ask no questions. I just go about my business, ‘Thanks for the opportunity,’ and look for the next door to open.
“Where was I mentally? I was in a great spot because I knew I still could play. There were a lot of teams who needed a receiver. So I knew I would land somewhere. I never doubted nothing.”
Yeah, Jones can still play. He has new numbers to prove it. Try four touchdowns in the first four games, tied for second in the NFL. He’s on pace for 1,268 yards, potentially his first 1,000-yard season.
With Rodgers throwing him passes again, Jones has thrived. He’s averaging 18.6 yards per catch, up from 9.1 last season. (He’s averaging 15.09 yards per target this season, compared to 5.9 last season.) Rodgers clearly makes receivers better, and Jones is no different.
Still, Jones’ rebirth has been remarkable. A week before the season, he was left without an NFL home. Through four games, he’s set a Pro Bowl pace.
“When I look at James Jones' production,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said, “I feel like James has kind of picked up where he left off. Last time, when he was here in 2013, he had a huge year. I look at James as just jumping back in a groove with Aaron, and frankly with the way our receiver group is put together today, with some of the injuries and the way the game flows, he's getting a lot of opportunities. And he's definitely cashing in on those.”
Jones laughed when asked if it feels like he never left Green Bay. Yes, of course he feels like he left. Jones moved across the country, jumped from one conference to another, stopped getting passes from the NFL’s best quarterback. He went from a Super Bowl contender to a team that won three games last year.
But, Jones said, it didn’t feel like he was gone very long. When he returned, Jones knew the Packers’ playbook. His timing with Rodgers was still crisp. His light-hearted personality was still infectious in the receivers’ meeting room.
Alex Van Pelt is in his first season as the Packers’ receivers coach, splitting those duties while he still coaches the team’s quarterbacks. He never worked with Jones on a daily basis, but he was close enough to know what Jones could provide on the field and in the locker room.
In the wake of Jordy Nelson’s season-ending ACL injury, the Packers needed a boost. No, Jones doesn’t replace Nelson, who blossomed into an All-Pro-caliber receiver last season. But the veteran’s comfort level with Rodgers — his timing with the quarterback, especially — has prevented a Packers offense from cratering after the loss of its best receiving weapon.
“The ball is coming out of Aaron’s hand on time,” Van Pelt said, “and you’ve got to be where you’re supposed to be. He (Jones) has got a great time clock on each route, being where he’s supposed to be. He knows how to speed it up or slow it down if he needs to, and just being a veteran. He’s a little more knowledgeable on how to work guys and set them up, move down the road. He’s been impressive.”
Looking back, general manager Ted Thompson’s decision to sign Jones to the veteran minimum — a one-year, $870,000 deal — is brilliant. A no-brainer. But there was no guarantee it would work out.
Even Van Pelt admitted he was curious to see what Jones could do on the field. He’d been gone for a year. Out of sight long enough to make a coach wonder.
Van Pelt said he didn’t know what to expect entering Jones’ first practice with the Packers last month.
“I wasn’t sure,” Van Pelt said. “Obviously, when J.J. was here, he was a tremendous player. You hate to see him go, but when a guy is gone, you don’t know for sure that he can come back and be the same guy. After the first two practices, you felt, ‘Man, OK, we’ve got J.J. back. Everything’s going to be fine.’”
When Jones was able to pick up where he left off, Van Pelt said it was a relief. His numbers are one thing, especially without Nelson. Perhaps more important, Jones’ presence on the depth chart offered a young position time.
He didn’t just boost the Packers’ passing game. Jones altered the positon’s makeup.
Now, the Packers can be patient with third-round rookie Ty Montgomery’s development, much like they were with Davante Adams last season. Now, Adams has an experienced receiver on the other side of the field. Now, Randall Cobb, still young at age 25, isn’t the only veteran in the room.
Now, Jones gets the satisfaction of knowing he was right.
Van Pelt marvels at Jones’ consistency. He caught at least one touchdown in the team’s first three games, two in the opener at Chicago. Last week, the only game where Jones didn’t catch a touchdown, he still led the team with five catches for 98 yards. His biggest play was a 38-yard reception on third down, setting up a late touchdown.
“I’m so happy to have him back,” Rodgers said after last week’s game at San Francisco. “I told him in the locker room, they broke the mold when they made him. He’s a different type of player.”
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