Bears rookie Velus Jones remembers the exact moment he knew he was a kick returner.
“Pop Warner, when I was in park league,” said Jones, a 6-0, 204-pound wide receiver taken in the third round of the draft last week. “When I had my first kickoff return against a real good park league team [that] at the time had lost one game since we were four years old, and we were 10 at the time. [That’s when] I realized sky’s the limit.”
As Jones remembers that moment, he was just winging it as a 10-year-old in youth football. But even then he showed some instinct for the nuance involved in returning kicks.
“We didn’t have no field, middle or boundary return,” he said. “The ball was just rolling on the ground and I picked it up. But I remember at a point that I was slow picking it up so I could bring them in a little more, and then I picked it up and I knew I could get away with speed. And then I just followed my blocks.”
That’s all well and good, but Jones more than likely is going to have to show that same athleticism and intuition as a wide receiver to give the Bears what they were looking for when they took Jones with the 71st overall pick in the draft.
Jones, in fact, has the highest draft pedigree of anyone in the Bears’current wide receiver corps — a notably nondescript group headed by Darnell Mooney (fifth round, 173rd overall in 2020), Byron Pringle (undrafted in 2018), Equanimeous St. Brown (6-207 in 2018), David Moore (7-226 in 2017), Isaiah Coulter (5-171 in 2020) and Dazz Newsome (6-221 in 2021).
As much as any of them, Jones will be an interesting early test of the new Bears regime’s ability to identify, develop and maximize talent. Jones comes in with modest college production –62 receptions for 807 yards (13.0 avg.) and seven touchdowns at Tennessee last season. He was projected to go in the fifth round of the draft — about 150th overall –before the Bears took him 71st overall. But his speed (4.31 at the Combine), athleticism, run-after-catch and jet-sweep potential make him an intriguing offensive weapon.
But players like that — especially a developmental player such as Jones –often are the beneficiary of a good offense as much as an initiator. Tarik Cohen withered in Matt Nagy’s offense. Cordarrelle Patterson was underproductive in it — he had much more success with the Falcons last season. But Jones’ versatility gives Getsy something to work with.
“I was talking to Luke the other day about the special attributes that [Jones] has and he’s got a big plan for him,” Bears coach Matt Eberflus said. “He’s going to look at his skill set and then we’ll expand that role. Let’s start him out at receiver and then let’s see what he can do — moving him around to different spots and getting him the ball, because he is an explosive athlete.”
It remains to be seen if Jones can fully develop as a receiver while also handling kick-return duties. (Even the great Devin Hester struggled with both –his kick return production dropped significantly in 2008-09 when he became the Bears’ leading receiver, then picked up again in 2010-11 when he was not as big a part of the offense.) But Jones embraces the dual role.
“I want to win games and help this coaching staff win games,” Jones said. “I’m all about winning and any way I can affect the game, definitely in the return game and as a receiver. I’m blessed that I can do both because I can impact the game in different ways. I’m really excited about that. Wherever they need me to be, that’s where I’ll be.”