As the Michael Vick decision showed us again this week, this is a country, and league, of second chances. Right now former Jaguars receiver Matt Jones, a 2005 first-round pick, is working out daily in Florida and wondering when his second opportunity will come.
Jones has been at the IMG Academy since March, getting his hulking 6-foot-6 frame into playing shape, running hills, working on his speed, and waiting for a call from an NFL club. Jones is coming off by far his best NFL season -– 65 catches for 761 yards in 12 games despite being part of a faltering offense — and had he been able to complete a full season, that projects to 87 catches for 1,015 yards, totals that generally result in a contract extension.
Instead, Jones sits in roster purgatory, in large part due to the reason he was unable to complete the 2008 season, and, according to scouts, due to some of his on-field habits as well.
Jones was suspended for the final three games of the 2008 season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. He was arrested for cocaine possession in July 2008 and entered a drug program in his native Arkansas as part of that arrest (felony charges would be dropped as long as Jones completed the rehab program). Then Jones was sent to jail for five days in March after a drug test showed alcohol in his system. That prompted the Jaguars to release him in March 2009.
Since then the NFL has informed Jones that he faces no additional suspension upon his return to the league. Thus far, he has not received a contract offer, although Jones says that his agent has been in contact with Tampa, the Jets, Tennessee and Dallas. Still, interest seems lukewarm at best.
“I’ve definitely made some mistakes,” Jones said by phone, “and I think I’ve grown as a receiver and off the field, too. As a young kid away from home you’ve got to learn how to handle things, and I’ve done that, and now I surround myself with better people. Now I’ve got a great network of people around me, instead of some other people I used to hang out with.”
Jones was a college quarterback at Arkansas who shot up some draft boards due to his speed, size and athletic ability, and he has tried to convert to a pass catcher. Jones is a freak of nature athletically –- a 6-foot-6 guy who can run a 4.3 40-yard dash –- but, according to scouts who have watched his film from 2008, he remains a limited route runner, and some have questioned his work ethic in the past as well.
Jones admits he was green as a wide receiver, but he is working daily to get better, says he is in his best shape ever and is attending Ricky Proehl‘s receiver camp next week to continue honing his game as he hopes for a call. He’s running 50-60 routes a day and working on nuance, making sharper cuts, bursting at the appropriate time.
“Usually, athletically, things come easy to me,” Jones said. “In college I got to (the) basketball team, and in two weeks I was starting. I am blessed with a lot of athletic ability. But the transition from quarterback to receiver is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I had to learn a lot of different stuff and it’s been fun and challenging, but I feel like I’ve finally figured it out.”
Jones said his days consist of little else now other than working out, spending an hour or so a day with sports psychiatrists honing the mental aspect of visualization and preparation, and playing golf. That’s pretty much it in Bradenton.
Several teams, at least on paper, seem to have a need for a wideout, and Jones’ athleticism cannot be denied. But he’ll have to find a way to change his image among personnel people (sources with Baltimore and Chicago, for instance, have said they don’t view Jones as a candidate if a need developed). Injuries are a part of the game, however, and though Jones said he hopes his chance does not come through another player’s ailment, he is doing whatever he can to impress if or when the time comes.
“I think some of my mistakes might be hurting me a little bit,” Jones said. “A lot of people compare me to a lot of other players who have been in trouble, and this was the first time I’ve ever been in trouble. I made a mistake, but I’ve been raised the right way and I know what’s right and wrong. You have to go through it and learn from it, and I can tell you nothing is going to be repeated.”