NASHVILLE – There are certain positions at which NFL players tend to age more gracefully than others.
Quarterback is one, evidenced not only by 44-year-old freak Tom Brady, but by a host of 30-somethings still playing at a high level like Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers (37 years old), Atlanta’s Matt Ryan (36), the L.A. Rams’ Matt Stafford (33), Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins (33) and Seattle’s Russell Wilson (32), for instance. Even the Tennessee Titans’ Ryan Tannehill (33),
One position that isn’t as kind to its comparative senior citizens? Wide receiver.
With Julio Jones limited to nine games last year, there wasn’t a single wide receiver older than 28 who finished among the NFL’s top 10 in receptions, and there was only one – Buffalo’s Cole Beasley (then 31 years old) -- who finished among the top 20.
Similar story with receiving yards. There wasn’t a single wide receiver older than 28 who finished among the top 10, and there was just one – Detroit’s Marvin Jones (then 30) – who finished among the top 20.
All of it makes the rare air in which Jones travels that much more impressive.
On Sunday, the 32-year-old will resume his quest to remain among the NFL’s elite at his position, despite a 1989 birthdate that makes him far more the exception than the rule among the top wide receivers in the game.
Over the previous five years, just one wide receiver aged 32 or over – Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald in 2017, who was 34 at the time – has finished among the NFL’s top 10 in receiving yardage for a single season. Only two wide receivers– Fitzgerald in 2017 and New England’s Julian Edelman (in 2019, when he was 33) – aged 32 or over during that stretch finished in the top 10 in number of receptions for one season.
Do we believe Jones still has what it takes to continuing kicking Father Time in the caboose this season, showing his younger peers at the position that 30-and-overs can still top the charts in categories like receptions and receiving yards – or at least remain very close?
“He is an elite athlete -- he is gifted, he is a very gifted person,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel said of the team’s high-profile trade acquisition. “I think he has worked really hard. I think he has focused on a lot of those things that have helped him be able to stay productive at his age.”
So, the obvious response to any question regarding whether Jones still has it or not: Why would there be a doubt?
Outside of his injury-shortened seasons of 2013 (foot) and 2020 (hamstring), Jones has posted some consistent and productive numbers. In each of his seven healthy seasons between 2012 and 2019, Jones racked up at least 79 catches and at least 1,198 yards. Those are Hall-of-Fame worthy numbers, and it should be noted that in 2019 – months after celebrating his 30th birthday, mind you – Jones finished second in the league with 1,394 receiving yards.
“He’s an incredible guy,” Titans tight end Geoff Swaim said. “I’ve been fortunate because I’ve been able to be around him a little bit and watch him work, the way he prepares. He’s the professional you’d expect him to be. I think his body of works speaks for itself. He’s been very productive, really a dominant player.”
Consider this when it comes to Jones: Of the 28 wide receivers selected in the 2011 draft, Jones (the sixth overall pick) is one of only three that are even still in the league. A.J. Green and Randall Cobb are the others. Jones’ 848 career catches are nearly 200 more than Green’s total of 649, close to 300 more than Cobb’s total of 563.
So outside of his God-given talents, just how has Jones maintained his elite status for so much longer than so many others of his age?
Titans wide receivers coach Rob Moore, who retired 31 after 628 receptions in 10 years, said the career of Jones – and other NFL players – might be aided by the NFL’s changing practice habits over the years.
“The philosophy is just different now,” Moore said. “There used to be a lot more emphasis put on contact and the grind and all those other things. Now we’re more interested in trying to maximize the length of those guys’ careers by how we practice, how we prepare.”
But Moore is quick to note that Jones has a hand in lengthening his stay in the NFL as well.
“He does all the little things right – like his diet, making sure he gets the proper rest, he’s not a drinker,” Moore said. “All those things that can sabotage the longevity of your career. He’s done a great job of that.”
Still, there is reason for concern after what happened last year, when injuries – primarily the hamstring – kept nagging at Jones and forced him to miss the third game of the season, the fifth, the 11th and – finally – the Falcons’ final four contests?
Do we toss out 2020 as a fluke? Or might it be a sign that even Jones is aging, sliding back toward the pack at long last?
The numbers Jones put up in the nine games he did play last season would indicate the former – more so than the latter. Next Gen Stats show that Jones led the NFL in catch rate over expectation in 2020, with a rate of 13.5 percent. That was comfortably ahead of the remainder of the top five – Buffalo’s Stefon Diggs (11.7 percent), Tampa’s Chris Godwin (10.3 percent), Green Bay’s Davante Adams (9.9 percent) and former Titan Corey Davis (9.6 percent).
If you like more traditional stats, Jones finished sixth among wideouts in average receiving yards last season, collecting 85.7 per contest.
Tennessee has not seen a lot of Jones here so far. He suffered an injury early in training camp and missed about three weeks of practice before returning to the field in late August. Even then, he didn’t appear to be a full practice participant until very recently. Jones didn’t play in any of the three preseason games. And on Wednesday, Vrabel sounded just a bit hesitant when asked if Jones would be able to handle playing the whole game Sunday against Arizona.
“I am not ready to commit to that,” Vrabel said, “but until I find out otherwise, I would imagine that it would be (okay).”
Missing multiple practice weeks? A shadow of a doubt about his season-opening workload? All this coming a year after his nine-game season in 2020?
Once again, it’s natural to wonder whether the seven-time Pro Bowler – at 32 years old – is starting to show he’s not immune to the aging process. It’s also easy to recall, however, what Jones said early in camp, when asked about those who doubted his ability to remain among the league’s best wide receivers at 32.
To those who might fall into that category, Jones offered a simple, two-word response: “Stay tuned.”