This was supposed to be the year where TJ Jones would finally break into the regular receiving rotation for the Detroit Lions. The wide receiver made the team’s 53-man roster as the fourth receiver. With no major receiving tight end threats on the roster he was supposed to see an increased role. Midway through the season the Lions dealt Golden Tate to the Philadelphia Eagles, and the slot role Jones prefers was vacated.
Instead, Jones was silent. He only caught 19 passes on 26 targets despite playing a career-high 15 games. He did score a career-high two touchdowns, but both of those came in a meaningless Week 17 victory.
Only weeks after Tate was traded away, the Lions added Bruce Ellington, who took over slot duties until an injury sidelined him for the last few weeks of the season. Five years into his NFL career, Jones still has not emerged as a regular receiving threat. Despite that, he still maintains a spot on the team’s roster and does get occasional work as a receiver.
The main skill that Jones brings to the Lions are his skills against zone coverage. Whether he is operating split wide or out of the slot, he does a great job disappearing within the defense and sitting between zones.
While he did get open fairly often, quarterback Matthew Stafford had a lot of issues getting him the ball. First, the quarterback missed a lot of throws to the receiver downfield:
At times, Jones would get wide open and Stafford just would not see him. Whether it was pressure in the face of the quarterback or Stafford just not looking this way, they clearly were not on the same page.
While it does not show up much on the stat sheet, it is a skill Jones possesses. The receiver is great at attacking the spaces between zones. He finds vacant spots and quickly sits there and makes himself a target for the quarterback. This skill is similar to much of what Marvin Jones Jr. does. Run downfield, find space, sit in that space.
Jones also does a great job at the point of the catch. He is great at spotting the ball and adjusting accordingly to snag it, even when there are defenders all around him. This catch against the Green Bay Packers was a great example:
The ball is half way to Jones before he even turns around and sees it coming. As he breaks on a deep out route, there are two defenders closing in on him, and the pass is travelling towards his knees. The receiver is quickly able to adjust and get low to make a grab and avoid taking a big hit in the process.
He has a great ability to spot the ball and react very quickly. This is a high-level mental skill that not many possess. The receiver then has the ability to quickly adjust his body and get low enough to catch a low pass. Jones does all of this knowing there are two defenders closing in on him to lay him out.
Later in the game, Jones caught a touchdown on another great display of mental capacity and great body control:
Jones runs a corner route aimed at the near pylon. The cornerback does a great job covering him, and Stafford has to throw a perfect pass to even give the receiver a chance at catching it. Once again, the ball is already on its way as Jones turns around. He spots it and is able to quickly make an adjustment to reach out and snag the ball while also staying in bounds.
This nimbleness and body control make Jones a legitimate threat within this offense. Even when the coverage is perfect he can make a play if Stafford throws him a good ball.
While the receiver is great at making contested catches, it seems like when he is faced with man coverage, all of his catches are contested. The receiver is not very fast and while he does have great levels of agility and body control, it does not really show when he is running routes.
In other words, his route running is sloppy. The receiver usually rounds the breaks on his routes, costing him speed and making him more predictable for the defender covering him. Even when he tries double moves to throw off defenders he fails, as his footwork is not good enough to beat them.
On this play against the Packers, he does all he can to shake off the corner but just cannot. He changes direction three times on his route but it does not really matter since the defensive back just reads him like a book.
The receiver does not attack his route the same way he attacks the ball. Instead, he fails to properly break on his route and on double moves and fails to regularly gain separation.
Jones also struggles against more physical corners. He does not have the strength to break from jams at the line of scrimmage and gets bumped off of his routes way too easily. Cornerback Marcus Peters, one of the better press corners in the NFL, beat him up on this play against the Rams:
Jones takes off on his route and Peters instantly jams him. The receiver cannot break free and by the time he finally is out of the defensive back’s grasp, Stafford has already thrown the ball.
While Jones is great against zone coverage and can make a few impressive contested catches, he is part of one of the Lions’ biggest problems this season. Detroit’s receivers had trouble getting any separation for quarterback Matthew Stafford in the latter stages of the 2018 season. In a way, it is not his fault really—the issue falls more on Bob Quinn’s failures to bring in any good route-running receivers—but he is a part of the overarching problem.
Does Jones have a spot in Detroit’s future?
It is hard to say. Not long ago I wrote about why receiver Bruce Ellington has a spot in Detroit’s future. The reasons I highlighted for why Ellington should have a role on the team all apply for Jones. Jones can find soft spots and sit between zones to give Stafford an easy target, he can even do so way further downfield than Ellington can. He has great hands, and can do much more than his teammate at the point of attack.
Jones is not good against man coverage—just like Ellington—but his faster speed at least makes him tougher for defenses to deal with than the receiver who usually just sits on short routes.
There is not a single thing Ellington does better than Jones, in a way Jones does almost everything better. So, why was Ellington more a part of the offense then Jones late in the season? Why did Ellington usurp Jones’ role?
It’s easy to chalk it up to coaching malpractice (and if you are a regular reader here, you know how much I love blaming things on Matt Patricia and Jim Bob Cooter), but it has to be more then that. Stafford and Jones have never really clicked as a quarterback-receiver duo. It became obvious at some points this season, with Stafford not looking his direction or just throwing the ball into a different place than where his receiver was heading.
tj jones' season would have been much better statistically if stafford didn't miss him so often pic.twitter.com/SnUItLfqX2— tua tagovailoa fan acct (@MansurShaheen) January 2, 2019
Jones has only 64 receptions in 42 career games played. Despite that, Detroit has always kept him around. He was drafted in the sixth round in the 2014 draft—hardly a major investment for a franchise. The receiver has remained in Detroit though, whether on the active roster or the practice squad, and was even re-signed before the 2018 season—and it makes perfect sense why.
Despite his low production, Jones has more talent than many players that are outperforming him on paper. While his lack of production can be attributed to the variety of receiving talent Detroit has had over the course of his career—he has been fighting for targets with the likes of Calvin Johnson, Tate, Jones Jr., Eric Ebron and Kenny Golladay—even when the team’s receiving corps was devastated late in the 2018 season, he only eclipsed three targets in a single game once.
When he was supposed to finally get his big chance this season, the Lions instead elected to add Ellington and give him a bulk of the targets.
There is definitely a place for Jones on the Detroit Lions —and on many other teams in the NFL. But five years into his career one has to ask, if his potential still has not translated into on the field production yet, will it ever?