When NFL teams cut players at this time of year, it’s usually for salary-cap reasons. The Baltimore Ravens terminated the contract of wide receiver and return man Jacoby Jones on Wednesday, but they saved very little in the process. Jones’ base salary was actually less than the dead money the Ravens will have against the cap due to his release.
If the Ravens didn’t save cap space by releasing Jones, does he still have anything left to offer other NFL teams? Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome is widely considered one of the best in the league, so it would be easy to think that Jones doesn’t have much to offer.
That is not the case.
He’s no Anquan Boldin, but Jones still offers quite a bit of value as a return specialist. The problem was that the Ravens would have to commit $2.5 million to a player who turns 31 this summer.
“He was invaluable to our success,” head coach John Harbaugh said via Jamison Hensley of ESPN.com. “Opponents, especially on special teams, schemed to stop him. What a compliment to him.”
He caught just nine passes for 131 yards in 2015, which was his lowest receiving output in five years, but that was mostly due to a lack of usage. Some might assume that his drop in usage as a wide receiver might indicate that he’s slowing down, but he was just as effective on punt and kick returns as he was two years ago.
The Ravens’ offensive coordinator last year, Gary Kubiak, chose to give whatever opportunities didn’t go to Torrey and Steve Smith to Marlon Brown and Kamar Aiken, which makes sense because they are both younger players with more upside than Jones. Most teams are going to want to give young players more snaps as the No. 3 and No. 4 options than a veteran—it’s the nature of the NFL.
While Jones may not find an offense that wants to use his limited abilities as a receiver, there are teams out there that haven’t had a decent return game in years and could use his services. In fact, six whole teams don’t have a kick or punt return touchdown over the last three years. Over that same span, Jones has five—the most of any player.
Since the league moved kickoffs to the 35-yard line in 2011, no returner has averaged more yards per kickoff return than Jones (minimum 40 returns). He also has four kickoff return touchdowns since then, which is two more than any other player in the league despite the fact that he didn’t return kicks in 2011.
The kickoff rules make what Jones does even more valuable. The rules have slowed down the return games of some teams, but Jones has thrived. In 2010, 23 kicks were returned for touchdowns. The highest since has been 13 touchdowns and just 32 total in four seasons.
|2011-2014 Kick and Punt Return Comparison|
|Player/Team||Punt Ret.||Punt Ret. Yds.||Punt Ret. Avg.||Kick Ret.||Kick Ret. Yds.||Kick Ret. Avg.||Kick/Punt Ret. TDs|
|Jacoby Jones (NFL Rank)||135 (1)||1371 (2)||10.2 (20)||101 (3)||3037 (3)||30.1 (1)||5 (1)|
|NFL Teams||> 12 Teams||> 17 Teams||> 22 Teams||-||> Atlanta Falcons||-||> 22 Teams|
Jones doesn’t seem to be slowing down, either. He averaged just about the same yards per kick return in 2014 as he did in 2012. With Jones returning kicks, the offense is starting at the 30 instead of the 20 roughly half the time.
Jones is also a good punt returner and has returned more punts over the last four years than any other player. On those 135 returns, Jones is averaging 10.2 yards, which is better than 22 teams have averaged over the same period. His 1,371 punt return yards since 2011 is better than 17 teams and trails only Ted Ginn by 14 yards.
Having a return specialist adds value because the teams that have them don’t need to use one of their top defensive backs, wide receivers or running backs to do the job. The extra wear on top position players is usually not worth the benefit, especially not when a player like Jones can come in and do the job.
Jones obviously takes up an active spot on game day, but it’s not as if he’s useless as a reserve receiver. In fact, Jones is one of only eight players since the merger with at least 150 career punt returns, 150 kick returns, 2,500 receiving yards and 200 receptions.
Until last season, Jones was good for a couple catches per game. Usually those catches picked up big yards, as Jones has averaged 13.5 yards per catch in his career.
What is surprising is the Ravens asked Jones to run a lot of curl and hook routes before phasing him out last year. For a player who should be good after the catch considering his ability as a returner, this is odd.
Kubiak seemed to understand Jones was best in space but didn’t afford him many opportunities. This bubble screen where Jones picked up 15 yards is a good example of how to use his talents. The Ravens used the exact same play in the Wild Card Round against the Steelers, but they were ready for it and got to Jones before he had blockers.
Jones picked up 5.5 yards after the catch per reception in 2009, 4.9 in 2008 and 4.7 in 2011 with the Houston Texans under Kubiak, according to Pro Football Focus. With the Ravens, Jones averaged just 3.5 yards after the catch in 2012 and 3.4 in 2013 before averaging 8.7 yards after the catch in 2014 on very few targets after the arrival of Kubiak as offensive coordinator.
In the right offense, Jones can still be a decent contributor as a receiver in a pinch. That’s a bonus because otherwise he’d only be active on game day because of his return abilities.
Committing to multiple years is probably a mistake, but Jones certainly still has something to offer a team. Good returners aren’t that common, especially those who aren’t an important part of the offense or defense, but just valuable enough not to be dead space on the roster.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics via Pro-Football-Reference.