The good news for Justin Jones is that the NFL doesn’t care about what happened in your past. All that matters is what you can do in the future.
Jones’s college career didn’t go quite as planned, but of all the rookies on the Patriots’ practice field this training camp, none is more intriguing than Jones, a 6-foot-8-inch tight end who looks more like an NBA power forward than a football player.
Not only does Jones look like a good bet to make the 53-man roster, but it’s possible that Jones makes more of an impact on the field this year than any of the team’s nine draft picks. First-rounder Dominique Easley is rehabbing a torn ACL, second-rounder Jimmy Garoppolo won’t get anywhere near the field as long as Tom Brady is healthy, the three offensive linemen drafted in the middle rounds are probably battling for backup jobs, and fourth-round running back James White will likely start the season behind Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen.
Jones, though, has a tremendous opportunity to get his football career back on track with the Patriots. You can’t fake 6-8, and in Jones the Patriots have a huge red zone target and someone who could potentially replicate some of Rob Gronkowski’s duties while the star tight end works back slowly from his knee injury. The Patriots have five tight ends in camp right now, but only Gronk and Michael Hoomanawanui are sure bets to make the roster.
“It’s a great opportunity, man. I couldn’t have asked for a much better place to be at,” said Jones, 22. “I’m excited to learn from one of the greats. Gronk has been someone I’ve watched since high school. Even during his career at Arizona, he’s someone I tried to model my game after.
“You can watch as much film as you want, but nothing beats seeing it in person. He’s real physical at the top of his routes. That’s something both Gronk and I have to our advantage — we’re a lot bigger than a lot of people.”
Last year the Patriots thought Zach Sudfeld could be their “Baby Gronk,” as some in the media jokingly dubbed him, but Sudfeld, listed at 6-7 and 260 pounds, was a little too weak in the run game and too overwhelmed by the NFL speed for the Patriots’ taste, and was released early in the regular season.
Jones, 22, is a more solid 275 pounds, and knows how to use his body to his advantage. Football was always his meal ticket, but he also averaged 13.6 rebounds and 2.8 blocked shots per game as a star center for his high school basketball team outside Atlanta. Boxing out also comes naturally to Jones.
“I think he’s doing a good job of understanding using his size. He has a good person to look at with Gronk in the meeting rooms,” safety Devin McCourty said. “He had a catch the other day where he just kept the defender on his back and made it so you couldn’t get to the ball.”
Of course, there’s a reason Jones went undrafted, and he still has a lot to prove with the Patriots. Unfortunately for Jones, the Hail Mary was arguably his greatest achievement in college.
He only caught 52 passes in three seasons (12 touchdowns), lost most of his 2011 season because of knee and wrist injuries and then was forced to miss the entire 2013 season when ECU declared him academically ineligible just days before the season opener.
Jones declined to discuss what led to him becoming ineligible, but said it served as a good kick in the pants. Jones spent the season working at a Jos. A Bank store in the Atlanta area and working out with noted trainer Chip Smith, hoping to get a shot at the NFL.
“It’s kind of like when you get out of high school and you think about what you could’ve done differently,” Jones said.
“I had some time to reflect and some time to change some things. It was tough when anything you love [is] taken from you. But all you can do is keep your eyes ahead and try to focus on getting to the next level.”
Jones was one of 477 players invited to the NFL’s regional combine in Atlanta in March, and did well enough that he was one of 240 players invited to the super regional combine in Detroit a month later.
Jones bench presses 400 pounds, and posted some impressive workout numbers in Detroit for a guy his size — a 40-yard dash of 4.90, plus a 37-inch vertical leap and a broad jump of 9-5.
“The opportunities started rolling in from there,” Jones said. “I was able to get myself back on the map a little bit through hard work and not giving up, and that’s led me to this field now.”
Jones had several teams calling him at the end of the draft, and he chose the Patriots, who don’t have much on the depth chart and were willing to guarantee him $15,000 to sign — a nice sum for an undrafted free agent.
Now he has a chance to make amends for a subpar college career and realize his huge potential.
“Coach [Bill] Belichick was really excited about me — spent several conversations with him on draft day on the phone,” Jones said. “He was just keeping me posted on what’s going on. He just really expressed the chance I would have right here, and that chance is becoming a reality now.”Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.