Niyo: Lions' Jones more comfortable, and it shows

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Lions receiver Marvin Jones is poised for the first 1,000-yard season of his career.

Allen Park— Marvin Jones admits to some growing pains. And that was to be expected, jumping from one team to the next, leaving behind one home to make another, and going from understudy to a leading role.

But as Jones prepares to head back to Cincinnati this weekend, facing his former team — and one of his early mentors in the NFL — as the Lions meet the Bengals with a playoff spot still within reach, he insists he feels none of that.

Not the nostalgia, nor the pain, which has given way to this year’s growth for Jones, now playing more like the No. 1 receiver that Lions general manager Bob Quinn hoped he’d signed with his first major free-agent deal in March 2016.

The 27-year-old Jones, named a Pro Bowl alternate earlier this week, ranks fifth in the NFC in receiving yards (970) and is tied for sixth in the league with eight touchdown catches.

More: Pro Bowl snub, selection process irk Lions’ Quin

And while he says there’s nothing sentimental about this return to Cincinnati, Jones remains close with Bengals star A.J. Green and other receivers from his days there, including Mohamed Sanu, who’s now with Atlanta. They’re still on a group text together, chiming in on each other’s performances throughout the season. And after last week’s highlight-reel catch against the Bears, which followed others — like that one-handed TD grab in New Orleans or the ridiculous catch over a pair of Vikings defenders on Thanksgiving — Green’s comment was, “There he goes again.”

The way this season has gone, it’s clear Jones is more comfortable now as he tries to live up to the five-year, $40 million deal he signed after his rookie contract expired in Cincinnati.

“Obviously, I was brought here for a reason,” he said.

'It takes time'

That was to try to fill the void left by Calvin Johnson’s retirement, something Jones looked ready to do initially last season, piling up 400-plus yards in his first few games in Detroit, including a 205-yard, two-touchdown performance at Green Bay.

He’d put the Lions on his list of nearly a dozen free-agent destinations two years ago, and told himself they’d move to the top if Johnson went through with his retirement plans. When Johnson did, Jones got a call from Detroit a couple hours later. By the end of the next day, he’d agreed to terms.

Yet that was the easy part, he says, even if it didn’t feel like it at the time. The hard part would be fitting in with a new team, a new offensive system, and building a rapport with a new quarterback, who’d spent the first seven years of his pro career doing the same with a likely Hall of Famer.

Jones isn’t there yet — far from it — but the progress is starting to show, poised for the first 1,000-yard season of his career.

After last year’s fast start fizzled and left him grousing about a “disappointing” debut in Detroit — he had just 19 catches for 274 yards and no scores the second half of 2016 — Jones spent time this past offseason working with NFL legend Randy Moss in Charlotte, N.C.

They connected through Lions strength coach Harold Nash, who’d worked with Moss in that same role in New England. And once they got on the field, the gloves came off — literally. Moss wouldn’t allow them, and Jones says if he ever caught a ball with his body instead of his hands, he had to do burpees as punishment.

But Jones took away plenty more from those workout sessions, including all the subtle ways a receiver can “stay friendly” to his quarterback. Not with precious gifts, but instead with precise route-running.

“It takes time,” Matthew Stafford said. “Marv has put a lot of work in. I think our system and the system he came from in Cincinnati is quite a bit different and he did a great job of adjusting, putting the work in. And then on Sundays he just goes out there and makes plays. I’m giving him chances on certain throws and he’s going up and making me right more often than not.”

Saturdays, too, as was the case last week against the Bears, when Jones lined up in the slot opposite cornerback Bryce Callahan, and ran a deep in route on third-and-18 from the Lions’ 30-yard line. Stafford was forced to escape the pocket as his protection broke down, and as he did, Jones broke off his route, releasing downfield and waving his hand as he spun around Callahan on the Chicago 45. Stafford saw him, and figuring a long interception was as good as a punt at that point, he planted to heave a pass with Jones still at the right hashmarks near the 30.

Jones kept running and tracking the ball as he raced toward the sideline, and he says he didn’t even see Bears safety Eddie Jackson camped out waiting for what he figured was a sure pick. Jones jumped a bit too early — “and I thought, ‘Oh, you-know-what’” — but he hung in the air long enough to make a play on the ball.

“And by the time I timed the jump, (Jones) was under me already,” Jackson told reporters after the game. “He just body-positioned me and made a great catch.”

Settling in 

One that was good for a 58-yard gain and a first down at the 12-yard line, setting up the Lions’ first touchdown a few plays later that put them up 13-0.

“Those 50-50 balls, he finds a way to come up with it,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “Guys have to make plays for you. Every throw’s not going to be absolutely perfect and (Stafford) has got to trust you enough that in 50-50 situations he’s going to lay it up there and know it’s going to be either our ball or nobody’s ball.”

Jones says it starts with trusting his own ability, though, and not allowing nervous energy to interfere with.

“Once I calm down and kind of take it slower, that’s when everything is good,” he said. “That’s one thing for me that was a change this year: I’m more settled in.”

That’s true on and off the field, as Jones and his wife and their four young children  — Marv III, Mareon, Murrell and Mya — split time between suburban Detroit and San Diego.

He’d been reluctant to give up the comfort of home they found in northern Kentucky while playing for the Bengals, but he says he has found it again here, from school to friendships to youth football.

All three of his sons appear to have their father’s knack for catching footballs — the eldest plays on a team in San Diego that’s coached by Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers — but Mareon, who just turned 6, takes it a step further.

“He was 2 years old watching film,” Jones said. “He could tell you every catch that I made in 2013. That’s just what he does. He watches whole games.”

Asked if that film study offered included critiques of dad’s play, Jones laughed.

“They’re not old enough to do that yet,” he said.

For now, at least, that’s still a grown-up’s game.