Nearly two years have passed since Green Bay Packers receiver James Jones failed to receive even a reported bite from one of the other 31 NFL franchises while an unrestricted free agent.
At least two teams inside the NFC North needed help at receiver and could have signed him away from Green Bay. No deal. Jones even reached out to the NFL team nearest his alma mater at San Jose State and couldn’t even get a phone call back. The San Francisco 49ers weren’t at all interested.
Jones would eventually re-sign with the Packers, agreeing to a modest three-year, $9.4 million deal in late July of 2011. The new contract included just $1.5 million in guaranteed money and another $1.45 million in incentive bonuses.
That same summer, the Seattle Seahawks signed Sidney Rice to a five-year, $41 million deal. Santonio Holmes re-upped with the New York Jets for five years and $45.25 million. Even Plaxico Burress, a then 34-year-old receiver who had just served 20 months in prison, got one year and over $3 million from the Jets.
Jones, with little other option, returned to Green Bay on a deal worth just over $3 million a season. The Packers have since cashed in.
In the two years since re-signing with Green Bay, Jones has caught 102 passes for 1,419 yards and 21 touchdowns, including career highs in catches (64), yards (784) and touchdowns (14) in 2012. Only teammate Jordy Nelson can claim to have caught more touchdowns (22) during that span. Jones’ 21 are tied for second among NFL receivers since 2011, on par with the likes of Calvin Johnson, Dez Bryant and Eric Decker.
Last season represented a breakout year for the former third-round pick. A fill-in starter during injuries to Greg Jennings and Nelson early on in 2012, Jones eventually cemented his spot in the starting lineup and went on to start all 18 games. His 14 touchdown catches led the NFL, and Jones dropped just three of his 93 targets.
Just two years after voluntarily allowing Jones to test the free-agent waters, the Packers will now head into 2013 with the 28-year-old receiver expected to play a major role. Departures will ensure Jones’ value next season.
Jennings, an unrestricted free agent this spring, is likely to find the kind of money and long-term security outside of Green Bay that Jones couldn’t in 2011. He’s as good as gone. Donald Driver, 37, retired from the NFL this month as the team’s all-time leading receiver. While unlikely now, the possibility of releasing tight end Jermichael Finley was discussed at length over the last few months.
Jones told NFL AM Tuesday he’s anticipating the opportunity to be a No. 1 receiver for Green Bay.
“I’m ready,” Jones said. “I work hard every year. I’m ready to take in that role if we don’t get Greg (Jennings) back. Hopefully, I can continue to have some success, make some plays and help my team win.”
The Packers return Nelson (49 receptions, 745 yards, seven touchdowns in 2012) and Randall Cobb (80, 954, eight), plus youngsters in Jeremy Ross and Jarrett Boykin. General manager Ted Thompson could also look to the 2013 NFL draft to add another promising young player to that mix.
Jones, who hasn’t missed a game since 2008, was the only Packers receiver to play in all 18 games last season. Barring injury, he’ll have a chance to do the same in 2013.
“It’s exciting because it means more opportunities,” Jones said. “As long as we can stay healthy, it means more opportunities for me, Randall (Cobb) and Jordy (Nelson). When you lose playmakers like Donald and if Greg doesn’t sign back, that’s two less guys we gotta give the ball to which means you’re going to get a lot more action.”
The real storyline for Jones next season? He’s entering another contract year.
Jones’ current deal will expire at the end of 2013. If unsigned between now and next spring, Jones would enter the unrestrictive free-agent market just days shy of turning 30 years old.
Upcoming deals needed for quarterback Aaron Rodgers, linebacker Clay Matthews and defensive tackle B.J. Raji have mostly clouded the looming free agency of a player like Jones.
However, his reality could put the Packers in a difficult free-agent situation come next spring. Another productive season from Jones would continue pushing up his value, although even another 10-touchdown season is unlikely to drive Jones’ value up to Jennings-like levels. His skill set remains underrated.
That said, Jones will be close to 30 years old by the next negotiation period, and the Packers weren’t crazy about bidding for Jones just two summers ago.
Roster turnover is to be expected in the free-agent era. The Packers will deal with the loss of Jennings and Driver at receiver in 2013, and Jones’ departure could be just around the corner.
Taking advantage of more opportunities next season will get Jones a pay raise in his third contract, but it’s worth pondering if he’ll get such a deal from Green Bay.
Zach Kruse is a 24-year-old sports writer who contributes to Cheesehead TV, Bleacher Report and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He also covers prep sports for the Dunn Co. News. You can reach him on Twitter @zachkruse2 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.