NFL Free Agency: James Jones Will Be Very Valuable Wide Receiver Addition

Cian FaheyFeatured ColumnistFebruary 23, 2014

Green Bay Packers wide receiver James Jones (89) prays before an NFL wild-card playoff football game against the San Francisco 49ers, Sunday, Jan. 5, 2014, in Green Bay, Wis. (AP Photo/Mike Roemer)
Mike Roemer/Associated Press

The NFL free-agency period is nearly upon us. One of the positions this offseason with the most diversity and talent is wide receiver.

Eric Decker of the Denver Broncos appears to be the top target, while Jeremy Maclin and Hakeem Nicks are established starters with different question marks that need to be answered. Riley Cooper and Julian Edelman are coming off career years, while Emmanuel Sanders and Golden Tate offer youth and talent.

Value is more important than anything at this time of the year for general managers. With that in mind, impending free agent James Jones of the Green Bay Packers should be weighing heavily on the minds of the league's decision-makers.

Jones isn't young at 29, and he doesn't have a long career of high production under his belt. In seven seasons, Jones has compiled 4,305 receiving yards and 37 touchdowns on 310 receptions.

Over his career, Jones' role in Green Bay's offense has fluctuated. He started nine games as a rookie and caught 47 passes, but he caught just 52 total over the next two seasons. He has always played a role, but that role became most prominent two seasons ago when he started all 16 regular-season games.

Jones finished that season with 64 receptions for 784 yards and an incredible 14 touchdowns.

His ability to go up and get the ball made him a very effective player on jump balls, but his athleticism allowed him to create big plays. Because Jones only had three touchdowns in 2013, it'd be easy to think that he was a one-year wonder.

However, this is not the case for Jones. He had a very good season last year and actually improved his yard total and average per catch.

Jones had 59 receptions in 14 games during the regular season, down from 64 in 16 the previous year. On those 59 receptions, he had 817 receiving yards, 33 yards more than the previous year. Most importantly, that production came when he only played six games with starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

It can't be denied that Jones missed some opportunities to score touchdowns, but the primary reasons for his low scoring total were the loss of Rodgers and the addition of Eddie Lacy to the offense.

Neither Scott Tolzien nor Matt Flynn could consistently provide Jones with opportunities to make plays in the end zone. Those opportunities were fewer because Lacy scored 11 rushing touchdowns. The Packers scored 17 regular-season rushing touchdowns, eight more than their 2012 total of nine.

At 29 years of age, Jones still proved to be a very valuable member of the offense.

The above chart represents every catchable target Jones saw in 2013. It should be noted that drops for this chart were qualified with leniency. Unless Jones had a comfortable catch on a well thrown pass, the play wasn't marked down as a drop.

For example, this play isn't considered a drop. The catch attempt itself on this play is very difficult. If anything, Jones could have tracked the ball in the air better and run through his route faster.

As it is, Jones attempts to make a fingertip reception. Even if he had been able to pull the ball in, he would have needed to drag his feet while at full extension and maintain control of the ball to the ground.

While he couldn't make that difficult reception, Jones did make a number of very tough catches last season. Including the playoffs, he saw 67 catchable targets and came away with 61 receptions. That means he had six drops in 2013.

Four of his drops came against tight coverage down the field. Working against tight coverage isn't something that Jones struggles with. He can create separation over the middle and deep down the field, but 18 of his 61 catches came when a defender was in position to either hit him or make a play on the ball.

When you take away the 15 screen passes/passes to the flat, an incredible 39.2 percent of Jones' receptions past the line of scrimmage were contested catches.

Jones is able to consistently make tough receptions such as these because he is very strong, but he's also very fluid as an all-around athlete. He doesn't overwhelm defenders like Anquan Boldin, but he is able to contort his body so he doesn't take massive hits all the time.

Furthermore, Jones is a natural catcher who adjusts to the football in the air very well.

Not only does Jones comfortably extend to make receptions when tightly covered, he is brave enough to repeatedly expose himself while working over the middle of the field. Jones understands how to contort his body and feet, so when he is catching the ball he sets himself up in the best possible way to gain yards after the catch.

That is a skill that few receivers do well on a snap-by-snap basis. Jones, like the San Francisco 49ers' Michael Crabtree, is one of the few who do. 

His ability to make plays with the ball in his hands and down the field allows him to be very productive regardless of the situation. He isn't an exceptionally varied route runner, but the routes he does run he typically runs very well.

Jones presents a problem for the defensive back covering him because of his all-around athleticism and ability with the ball. Defensive backs who press him at the line expose themselves to deep passes down the sideline or back shoulder throws, while those who line up in off coverage give him easy receptions that can turn into first downs or big gains.

His physicality allowed him to draw three flags on defenders covering him, though he should have had at least two more last season. On his receptions, he either broke through, carried or outran potential tackles 20 times. On 14 catches he escaped one potential tackler, while he beat four on one slant route against the Dallas Cowboys.

At 29 years old, Jones still has plenty of time left to be a productive starter for somebody. His age and his low touchdown number from last season will be used against him in contract negotiations, but it shouldn't affect the quality he provides on the field.

Jones proved that he could be an effective weapon with poor quarterback play last season. He isn't reliant on Rodgers to be successful.

While other players may be younger or carry more recognizable names, they will also cost more money or come with durability question marks. Jones may not have the fanfare or the perceived potential to boom (or bust), but he does represent the most value of any free-agent wide receiver.