Should the Oakland Raiders continue with the Taiwan Jones experiment?
Taiwan Jones is an interesting character is the recent Raiders mythology. The organization and fans alike seem to be able to acknowledge his value to the team. Just exactly where that value is best realized is a different story. For while his universally acknowledged athleticism is on bright shiny display as a gunner during kickoffs and punts, it’s struggled to make much of an impact anywhere else.
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Over the last few years (minus a 2014 injury year) we’ve seen the Taiwan Jones experiment move from running back, to cornerback, to kick returner, back to running back again. Unfortunately, the position journeyman has failed to live up to the promise of his insane athleticism, failing to perform beyond mediocre in any of these positions.
This has led many a Raiders commentator to ask whether a Jones is really worth the 3 year/$4.35M contract he signed in 2014. But is he really just a mediocre player, or is something else going on?
Sunday’s game against New Orleans wasn’t exactly the best game for the speedster.
Jones had only one rush for -8 yards. He caught two passes for 17 total yards. As a kick returner, Jones received three kickoffs averaging a mere 16 yards per kick. That 16-yard kick return average was good for 24th in the league in Week 1 and had Raiders Twitter abuzz with concerns that maybe Jones shouldn’t be the primary kick returner anymore.
Let’s get that notion out of the way first. Jones had a bad Week 1 as a kick returner but is a borderline elite kick returner in the last two years he’s actually played. Pro Football Focus actually ranks Taiwan Jones as the 10th best KR in 2015 (out of 180 kick returners) and the 13th in 2013 (off 199). He was injured most of 2014.
This is excellent quality kick return play. If you go based on the raw numbers he looks even better.
In 2015, Jones 4th in overall kick return yardage, and 7th in average return yardage at 26.7 yds. That’s a full yard ahead of the 25.8 yards per return earned by Tyler Lockett, who was praised as a kick return weapon all season long. Raiders’ fans should be happy to keep Jones as a kick returner.
Part two of the question remains: How can Jones’s talents be fit into the offense?
Looking at his normal running numbers is more humbling. Even taking into account his low sample size Pro Football Focus ranks Jones as their 45th best HB in 2015 and 46th in 2013. That about fits into the mediocre range.
Where it gets interesting is when his numbers are split between his runs and his receptions on offense. As a straight up runner, PFF ranks Jones as 53rd in 2015 and an abysmal 98th in 2013. However as a receiver, his ranking jumps to 25th among RB’s in 2015 and 17th in 2013. He’s clearly better a pass catcher than he is as a runner from the backfield.
There could be several reasons for this, and given his small sample size anything could be in play. But there’s an interesting similarity between his increased performance as a receiver and his high quality play in special teams. It’s in these similarities that the key to his offensive role might be found. As both a gunner and a kick returner, Jones is allowed to build his speed and work his athleticism before he gets the ball or gets to the ball. He gets open space to work his magic and rev his engine before the point of contact.
The same can be said of his time as a receiver. Generally, he’s in the flat with several yards between him and the closest defender. In space, Jones can decisively use his speed and agility to make defenders miss, then turn on the afterburners to get those final yards. Everyone remembers that magical play against the Jets last season.
It’s pure magic. And honestly, that’s the problem isn’t it. Those who have watched Jones for the last five years see plays like this and know what he’s capable of. So when he performs like a regular depth player, he feels like a huge disappointment instead of a solid role player. Sure he’s not perfect, but it doesn’t help that sometime he looks like a video game cheat code.
Let’s put it all together.
Taiwan Jones is a clearly a weapon in the right circumstance. He’s better in space than behind the offensive line. His effectiveness increases when he has more time to use his speed and agility before reaching a would be tackler (or blocker). And, oh yeah…He has a career average of 14.3 yards per reception.
Taiwan Jones should be a receiver — specifically a slot receiver.
In the slot he has the biggest advantage against a DB. He can’t be pinned to a sideline or forced inside without the defender giving up a dangerous sacrifice. In the slot, Jones’ speed could be equally terrifying running seam routes between struggling safeties or crossing routes past slow linebackers. He would still be in position to step back for a screen or pass to the flat, and could be used in jet sweeps to mix it up. He’d get to use his speed in space before the catch, and he’d have a full head of steam after the catch to get those all important yards after catch before the defense reaches him.
Imagine how he could exploit the mismatches motioning out of the backfield with a linebacker across from him in the slot. Danger, Will Robinson.
Whether he ends up there or not is up to Coaches Jack Del Rio and Bill Musgrave. But, hey, he’s tried everywhere else. Why not continue the experiment by moving him to the slot?