Allen Park — TJ Jones is clearly bigger, but the Lions receiver would rather keep the amount of weight he added during the past year a mystery.
“The way I look at it is like engagement rings,” Jones said. “Say you see an engagement and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, it looks like it’s two carats,’ but it’s maybe a carat. Am I going to tell you it’s a carat, or do I let it go with (you thinking) it’s two carats?
“Some people have stated I look more than what I am and some have stated I look like I am what I am. I’m going to just let them think I’m anywhere in between.”
Coming out of Notre Dame in 2014, the 6-foot Jones checked in at 188 pounds. Entering his third season last year, the Lions listed him at 190 (a figure they haven’t updated). Viewed as a liability, both an injury risk and limited as a blocker, the Lions opted to waive him before the season.
The move caught many observers off guard. Jones had performed well throughout camp, and while calling him a lock would have been a stretch, few anticipated the Lions rolling into the season with only four receivers on the roster.
The setback taught Jones an important lesson.
“Nothing is guaranteed,” he said. “No matter how you may think it looks or how everyone outside thinks it looks, it’s never completely how it ends up being. We don’t know what the coaching staff is thinking, we don’t know what the front office is thinking, so never relax. Every day, come out and prove why you deserve to be the third, fourth, fifth, however many we keep, receiver on this team.
“It comes down to control what you can control,” he said. “Don’t worry about what decisions might be made or what they think of you, just make sure you’re putting your best foot forward every day, so they have your best effort to judge.”
It turns out, no teams were looking for a skinny, relatively unproven receiver. Jones cleared waivers and rejoined the Lions practice squad. He was told he needed to bulk up if he wanted another shot, a challenge he embraced and has him back on track to make the squad this season.
That’s not to say Jones is suddenly going to be confused for Anquan Boldin, one of the league’s more-rugged blocking receivers, tipping the scales at nearly 220 pounds. But Jones is trending in that direction and looking to shed his self-imposed reputation as a finesse player.
“The pluses are definitely the physicality of the game, being able to run routes differently, make bigger blocks, add a bigger-player mentality to how I play,” Jones said. “This game is not all finesse, which is where I was a year ago, trying to finesse around contact, avoid contact. Whereas now, it’s not affecting me as much. I can welcome contact, knowing I have the strength to get out of it.”
Will the extra pounds make the difference for Jones, who was already one of the better-route running options among the players competing for a fourth and potentially fifth receiver job? That remains to be seen, but he’s in put himself in a good spot.
In the first preseason game, Jones was on the field with the first-team offense and had the biggest play of the opening possession, coming free across the middle and snagging a floating pass from quarterback Matthew Stafford for a 22-yard gain. It was Jones’ only target in 14 snaps.
It’s likely only a matter of time before Kenny Golladay pushes his way into the starting lineup, alongside Golden Tate and Marvin Jones. We already saw some early signs of that this week, when the trio took increased practice reps together.
But the Lions will carry at least four receivers, and likely five. Jones has done what was asked of him. He’s a bigger player than he was last year and a better player.
“Obviously, he’s improved in terms of his contact ability, being able to block and get in position to do a little bit more damage on the perimeter, in terms of sealing guys and things of that nature,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “He was always willing, he just needed a little bit more weight and a little bit more firepower and he’s done that.
“I think it’s also helped him in terms of explosiveness. He’s always been able to get open but I really do think he’s a much better player than he was a year ago.”