There has been plenty of excitement around the NFL Draft and where all the former Notre Dame Fighting Irish ended up. While Cole Kmet, Chase Claypool, and the other four draftees garnered most of the attention, one player seems to be left out.
Running back Tony Jones Jr. signed with the New Orleans Saints as an undrafted free agent and has become the forgotten Notre Dame player in this process. However, don't count Jones out; he is exactly what New Orleans has been looking for.
During head coach Sean Payton's tenure, he has had one of the most electric offenses in the NFL. Most will point to the aerial attack led by quarterback Drew Brees. While Brees has been a major part, the ground game has been in the background making or breaking the Saints season. This is where Jones fits in perfectly.
Since the departure of running back Mark Ingram, New Orleans has been looking for that bigger back to complement standout Alvin Kamara. Latavius Murray was brought in to fill that role but couldn't quite match up to his predecessor.
This two-back system has gone back to Reggie Bush and Duece McCallister to Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles. Since Payton relies so heavily on a two-back system, it was an underlying issue for offensive struggles in 2019. Where Jones fits in is his near-identical size, athleticism and production to a former Saints great, Pierre Thomas, who was also an undrafted player.
Thomas and Jones had almost the exact same college production in their senior seasons. Thomas rushed for 755 yards (5.8 YPC) and five touchdowns as a senior at Illinois, while Jones racked up 857 yards (6.0 YPC) and six touchdowns. Jones had three more receptions (15 to 12) and 25 more yards (104 to 79).
Thomas measured in at 5-10 1/2 and 209 pounds at his pro day and ran a 4.65 in the 40-yard dash. Jones measured in at 5-10 and 220 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine and ran a 4.68. Thomas had a 7.12 in the three-cone drill and a 4.31 in the 20-yard shuttle, while Jones ran a 7.18 in the three-cone drill and a 4.21 in the 20-yard shuttle.
Jones, both physically and from a college production standpoint, is a mirror image of Thomas.
While Jones can be brushed aside due to inconsistency or underwhelming performances at times, he also flashed some big play ability. Looking back at the 51-yard screen against USC or the 176 yard performance a year later against USC is proof he has the ability to put it together.
He is also a big-bodied running back with the ability to pick up the blitz which has been a significant area of concern for New Orleans. This all comes together as the Saints are coming up on another major problem.
As they pay their stars, Kamara has started to look like the odd man out and his contract is almost up. With time for Jones to sit and learn, he could be molded to fit that Thomas role as Kamara plays out the rest of his contract.
However, all this isn't a lock that Jones is 10 years away from being a Saints great. Thomas was a workhorse who was buried on the depth chart for his first two seasons. He made carries count and put his time in on special teams.
While I don't expect Jones to shy away from the same type of work and commitment, it is an uphill battle for him. Honing his abilities and consistencies is an obvious must, but overlooking his attributes that landed him at Notre Dame and in the NFL would be unfair.
He isn't the complete back and likely wouldn't work on all 32 teams. However, Jones signed with the ideal franchise, as their ideal back that Payton has built his system on. He may not have the name power of a Julian Okwara or Claypool, but I wouldn’t bet against him making an impact at some point with the Saints.
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