Donald Jones, New England Patriots and the Importance of Finding Your Fit
For the fans and teams, the NFL draft is a joyous event. Teams have the flexibility to get better in a variety of ways, while enough time has passed since the end of the regular season for all fans to have renewed their optimism for their favourite franchises. Even though the players are the ones making the big money, there is somewhat of a melancholic aspect to the draft for the prospects entering it.
Because the draft is the only gateway to enter the league through and being drafted comes with a substantial salary, players can be forgiven for overlooking the little say they have in where they ply their trade. Leagues with draft systems are incredible because the players have no say in where they work. Of course, they have the option to change their career path or completely squash their earning potential by moving to a lower level league, but if you want to play in the NFL, then you must accept whatever team, coach and situation you are brought into.
Considering that, there is some logic in the line of thinking that going undrafted can be better than being selected in the latter rounds. Doug Baldwin and Vontaze Burfict are the two most successful undrafted free agents from the past two draft classes.
Had Baldwin been drafted in the seventh round of the 2011 draft by a team such as the New England Patriots, he likely would have been fighting for a roster spot and at best been a backup to Wes Welker. He could easily be out of the league already had he not had the opportunity to join the Seattle Seahawks and establish himself as a rookie receiver.
Vontaze Burfict was in a similar situation to Baldwin after the 2012 draft. Baldwin hadn’t tumbled from the top 10 of the first round to the dredges of free agency in just one season, but the result of their situations were the same. Burfict had options because of his talent, but he made the perfect choice when he joined the Cincinnati Bengals. Marvin Lewis had proven he could deal with character flaws, or more importantly from Burfict’s point of view, he accepted players with bad reputations.
The problem with that line of thinking is that every team in the league has already proven that they’re not that bothered about adding you to their roster. Being an undrafted free agent means being passed by every single team in the league multiple times. It appears that some believe undrafted free agents all get multiple offers to attend training camps. That is simply not the case.
Only the top priority free agents get fought for and even those players won’t get all 32 teams in the league involved. The reality is that most undrafted prospects are just looking for a chance and will likely accept the first offer that comes their way….if one comes their way.
Coming out of a non-power-house college school in 2010, Youngstown State, that was the case for Donald Jones. The then 22-year-old receiver was brought to training camp by the Buffalo Bills, a franchise that had just finished the 2009 season with a 6-10 record. Chan Gailey was taking over as head coach, Trent Edwards was the favourite to start at quarterback.
For any wide receiver, that is not an ideal scenario.
For Jones, it would prove borderline traumatic.
Edwards wouldn’t last long, as he was quickly replaced by Ryan Fitzpatrick during Jones’ rookie season. Coming into the starting role, Fitzpatrick was at best a weak-armed quarterback who could make quick decisions to get rid of the ball quickly. He fit in perfectly with the offense that Gailey would develop during his three years as the team’s head coach.
The combination of Gailey’s offense and Fitzpatrick’s erratic deep accuracy meant that the best wide receiver fits for the Bills were players like Stevie Johnson. Johnson isn’t a speedster who stretches the field, he’s a dynamic route runner who can create separation underneath and on intermediate routes as a possession receiver.
Jones ran a 4.46 coming out of college and although he didn’t average huge numbers per reception, he has shown off some explosion during his time in the NFL. That explosion hasn’t translated statistically or with that many big plays on the field, but that was largely because of his terrible situational fit and his limited time on the field.
During the 2010 and 2011 season, Jones played just 680 total snaps with 81 total targets. He averaged roughly 10 yards per reception during that time, which is not good for an explosive receiver, but only Lee Evans was able to crack 15 yards per reception during 2010 before being traded in 2011. Evans’ trade reflected the change in philosophy in Buffalo under Gailey. Outside of the receivers with less than 20 receptions during the 2011 season, only Stevie Johnson was able to average over 13 yards per reception and most players were in and around 10 or 11 yards per reception.
By his third year in the league, Jones had achieved his goal. From an undrafted rookie, he had worked his way through training camp body to bit-part contributor to full-time starter. Jones played 684 snaps in 10 starts. On 62 targets, he caught 41 passes for 443 yards and four touchdowns.
Statistically, Jones is just another average receiver and it’s true that he is not an elite or special talent. However, he’s not just another guy either. In the right situation, Jones could flourish as a role player. Role players aren’t sexy, but they are very important to winning franchises. The only teams who don’t value role players are unsuccessful ones. A team like the Detroit Lions who had revolving doors around Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford and Ndamukong Suh last season were distracted by big names and didn’t focus on creating a team.
Therefore, because of Jones’ previous fit with the Bills and how that negated his skill-set, his spot with the New England Patriots makes him a very intriguing prospect this off-season.
Jones isn’t walking into the New England locker-room to become a starter. He will have to work for his playing time as he competes with veteran Michael Jenkins and rookies Josh Boyce and Aaron Dobson. Jones was let go by the Bills after his three-year rookie deal expired. He was let go because of a regime change, but it may be a blessing in disguise. At 25 years of age, Jones is entering his prime, whereas Jenkins is going to be 31 this season and the two rookies are three years behind Jones in their development.
That advantage is definitely working in Jones’ favour, but he is also the perfect fit for the prospective role with the Patriots.
In Buffalo, he was a jigsaw piece that was being forced into a crossword. In New England, he will not only fit perfectly with the other pieces of the offensive puzzle, but also should be the final piece in the offense that Brandon Lloyd hoped to be last season. The Patriots have revamped their receiving corps this year, but retained the primary principles that have been evident since 2007. Danny Amendola has replaced Wes Welker as the possession receiver, while Michael Jenkins and the rookies are the field-stretchers following in the footsteps of Randy Moss.
Jones isn’t exactly Moss, neither is anyone else on the roster, but he is the perfect fit for a Donte Stallworth or Deion Branch role within the offense. Yes, he can stretch the field and hit home runs every so often, but he can also work intermediate and shorter routes because of his time in Gailey’s system. With Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Danny Amendola and a dangerous running-threat, Jones will be in space from snap-to-snap. He will never be the focus of the defense’s gameplan no matter how many plays he makes.
That doesn’t mean he can’t be a difference-maker however. Patriots fans should know that better than most, the words “make him go to Manningham” should still be ringing loud in their ears.
Jones didn’t show off his full repertoire as a starter last year. His longest receptions came against the Patriots, when he caught a 68 yard touchdown and 22 yarder. Outside of his longs, the most notable part of Jones’ stat-sheet for his transition to New England are his drops. Jones’ drops from Buffalo aren’t really representative of what he projects to do with the Patriots.
In order to explain this, I went back and watched every drop of Jones’ last season.
His first drop of the season came in Week 5 against the San Francisco 49ers. It initially appeared that his hands cost him the opportunity at scoring a touchdown, but when you slow the play down you see that Jones beat the cornerback on a slant and was wide open for the reception, but Fitzpatrick threw the ball behind him. Jones should still have caught the ball, but it was a more difficult reception than it should have been because of his quarterback’s terrible throw.
His drop the following week against the Cardinals was another reception he should have made, but similarly poor from his quarterback in a difficult situation. Fitzpatrick threw the ball much lower than was comfortable for Jones and he tried to catch it as he was falling to the ground.
Jones was running a slant inside and again dropped a pass that he should have caught. Against the Dolphins and Colts, Jones had two more very similar drops in very difficult scenarios for him.
All of Jones’ drops above are very similar. They come in traffic over the middle of the field. For the Patriots, those are routes that he won’t run very often. Amendola, Gronkowski and Hernandez are all excellent receivers over the middle of the field, while even Julian Edelman can slide into that role if Amendola is injured. Jones won’t be asked to work the middle of the field, instead he will work the sideline and outside the hashmarks of the field.
According to Pro Football Focus, Jones only had one other drop. It came against the Indianapolis Colts.
Pro Football Focus counted this as a drop, but personally I wouldn’t. Drops are subjective by their very nature and here Jones is able to get his finger-tips to a wildly overthown pass from Fitzpatrick. To blame Jones for this incompletion is unfair in my opinion because the degree of difficulty for the receiver is too high.
By their harsher standards, PFF didn’t give Jones another drop on 62 total targets.
With greater levels of exposure, Jones might drop the ball more often than he currently does in these scenarios, but he will definitely get more opportunities to show off his speed and acceleration. Here he used a double move to get free down the sideline, not every receiver in the league can create that separation. Presuming he catches a better thrown pass, Jones would have had another huge touchdown reception.
He’s not a big name, but neither were many Patriots players before they played under Bill Belichick. Even as everyone watches Danny Amendola, Donald Jones could be the next Wes Welker in another sense. The sense that he is an unknown name from a division rival who will flourish in his fit with a new franchise.
You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf