By: Will Burchfield
On the heels of a disappointing second half in 2016, Marvin Jones wanted to get off to a hot start in 2017. Then he wanted to sustain it.
So, six games through the season, is Jones happy with the way he’s played?
“Uh, yeah, yeah. The opportunities that I’ve had, yeah,” Jones said on Monday, sounding somewhat resigned.
When asked if he’s getting enough opportunities, he smiled coyly, almost like he wanted to say something he knew he shouldn’t.
“Well, yeah, yeah, sure,” he said, and then laughed at his own evasiveness as a group of reporters did the same.
When the topic was broached again later, Jones responded in kind. There was the smile, the chuckle and the feeling that he was biting back the truth.
“Y’all know I’m not gonna say anything,” he said.
When that same question was posed to him — “Are you getting enough opportunities?” — he grinned and said, “What do you think?”
In no way did Jones, who ranks second on the Lions in targets (40), sound bitter. He never voiced frustration or discontent. Nor did he voice conviction. There was a sense of hesitation in the way he replied to an unambiguous line of questioning.
Jones agreed the end of last season, when he averaged just 38 yards receiving and failed to score a touchdown over the final eight games, left a sour taste in his mouth. He’s notched three touchdowns thus far in 2017, but otherwise hasn’t been much of a factor.
Prior to a big day against the Saints in Week 6, Jones was averaging 36.8 yards per game.
“I figure just the opportunities that came to me, capitalized on most of them, and that’s all I can do. Can’t worry about anything else,” said Jones. “That’s my thing. When my number’s called, make something happen. That’s what I’ve done my whole career up to coming here, and that’s what I’m going to do now. I don’t worry about anything else.”
That big day against the Saints, which included 96 yards and a touchdown on a career-high 14 targets, was the first time Jones really stood out this season. It also happened to coincide with an injury to leading receiver Golden Tate.
Jones said he didn’t necessarily expect a deluge of targets heading into the game.
“It’s just kind of how it shook out. I just play the game and whatever comes my way, comes my way,” he said.
Jim Bob Cooter’s offense is built around diversity in the passing game. It emphasizes quick, high-percentage throws over big-play gambles. That’s what led to the Lions becoming just the fifth team in NFL history last season to have five players with at least 50 receptions.
Jones, then in the first year of a five-year, $40 million contract, finished fourth with 55. He also finished second in targets with 103, a pace almost identical to the one he’s on now.
The difference this year, it seems, isn’t in the number of targets but in the nature of them. Jones, who’s proven he can take the top off a defense, hasn’t had many opportunities to do so.
He’s averaging seven yards per target, down by more than two yards from 2016. He’s experienced a similar drop-off in yards per reception, from a career-high 16.9 to 14.0.
Jones had 16 plays of 20-plus yards and four plays of 40-plus yards last season, both of which tied for 11th in the NFL. Through six games in 2017, he has five plays of 20-plus yards, tied for 23rd, and zero of 40 yards or more.
He was brought into Detroit to be a game-breaker, a big-play threat, and it seems the Lions have played away from his strengths in 2017. This has partly been out of necessity, with the offensive line unable to protect Matthew Stafford long enough for receivers to get open downfield.
Asked how the offense can unlock the deep passing game, Jones said, “Just executing all around. It’s not one particular thing that’s just like, ‘Oh, if we do this, then we can unlock this.’ We just have to play better overall, everybody.”
Jones has also seen extremely tight coverage at the line of scrimmage, and defenses have guarded against him over the top. He laughed when it was suggested to him that he politely ask cornerbacks to retreat a step or two.
“Only if they could,” he said, “but it is what it is. It’s just up to me to create chaos at the line and do what I do. But yeah, I’ve kind of sensed it. Especially when you see a corner and then a corner and then the safety and it’s like, ‘Ughh.’ But it’s cool.”
It’s not so much the lack of a cushion that has constrained Jones, but the extra help down the field.
“Sometimes you want a guy to come up and pressure you with no safety over the top. Obviously that’s kind of what a receiver would always want, run a go (route) against just one person. But I don’t know,” said Jones. “However they play me I just roll with it.”
Does he have a preference?
“I kind of would like to them to stay up on me, but my thing is it doesn’t matter what they do,” he said. “I control what we do and what I do.”
But Jones doesn’t control all that the Lions do. He doesn’t control the performance of the offensive line and he doesn’t control the play-calling. Right now, those are the two biggest factors in what’s been an underwhelming season for Jones, who seems to be craving more opportunity even if he’s unwilling to say it.