Football players get their opportunities in the NFL because of height and weight, speed and agility, talent and drive, but sometimes the most important combination of factors for actually making it in the league is time and place.
Did someone get hurt? Was there a numbers crunch and you were the odd man out? Did this team keep you when another would have cut you, or vice versa? Being in the right place at the right time can’t be measured with a stopwatch, but it is undefeated.
Running back Matt Jones, who is trying to hook on with the Eagles despite a sudden crowd at that position, hasn’t been lucky with the circumstances of his career. Some of that is on him, he readily points out, but some of it was due to a minor knee injury that hurt his draft standing, and some because of a bone bruise in the NFL that cost him a starting job and forced him to change teams.
He could have done things differently, handled them differently, but it was all part of the learning process. Now with his third team in four seasons, Jones hopes time and place will finally be his friends.
“When I was younger, I had some growing up to do, maturity-wise. If I could go back now, just like everybody would say, it would be different. But it don’t work like that,” Jones said. “What I went through made me a better person. Sometimes, when you are a rookie and you make plays, or a second-year player and you make plays, you take things for granted. I’m ready to show that I’ve still got it, and that I’m a talented back.”
The depth chart shows that Jay Ajayi, Corey Clement and Darren Sproles figure to be ahead of him, health issues aside. Also in the running backs room are Wendell Smallwood, Donnel Pumphrey and rookie free agent Josh Adams. It would seem Jones might have to beat out all the players on the second list to make the team. That doesn’t take into account how special teams would factor into a final decision, or all the things that could happen between now and the final September cutdown.
If nothing else, Jones knows not to assume anything in the NFL. He is also smart enough to know, at 25, that his remaining chances to make it in the league are dwindling. In fact, this could be it.
“It could be. That don’t scare me at all. I’m here and I’m ready to work. This is the best I’ve ever felt,” Jones said. “I look at film from back then and look at film now and say, ‘Wow, I would have never made that cut,’ or, ‘I would have never caught that ball.’ I’ve been working my tail off. All I can say is I’m ready.”
Jones was a highly rated recruit from Tampa when he accepted a scholarship to play for the University of Florida. He had a solid freshman year and was having a productive sophomore season when midway through the year an LSU defender hit him on the side of his right knee and Jones sustained a partially torn meniscus. He came back from that to have a very good junior year, but he lasted until the third round of the 2015 draft, which was a dropoff from his pre-injury standing.
>>READ MORE: Donnel Pumphrey and Duce Staley make peace
The Redskins took him with the 95th pick and he had a decent rookie season working behind Alfred Morris, rushing and receiving for 794 yards from scrimmage. The next year, with Morris gone, Jones began the season as the lead back and started the first seven games, running for a 4.6 yards-per-carry average, before knocking knees with a defender and suffering a deep bone bruise of the kneecap. When he returned from the injury, his job had disappeared.
“I knew it wasn’t anything serious, but it happened in Washington like that,” Jones said. “I couldn’t do nothing about it. I couldn’t prove myself to get back that opportunity. It was gone.”
The Redskins eventually waived him and he was picked up by Indianapolis for the 2017 season. It was a great chance for Jones to study under Colts running back Frank Gore, but he didn’t get much of a chance otherwise.
“Frank taught me how to use my pads as a bigger guy for leverage, how to stay healthy, how to last the whole game,” Jones said. “I didn’t really get the opportunity there I wanted, but I learned from it and I got to learn from a future Hall of Famer.”
After getting on the field for just five games with Indianapolis and totaling nine offensive snaps and 40 snaps on special teams, Jones had to move on again, and that’s where the Eagles come into the story.
“Howie [Roseman] looked at my film and my past, and he’s giving me a chance. He wanted me around and I don’t take that lightly,” Jones said. “I know if I want to win some time, I’ve got to beat some of these other guys out. I’ve got to step on their toes a little bit. The competition is really high and I love it.”
One thing the NFL does not lack is competition for jobs. That’s even true at the running backs position for the Eagles. Matt Jones feels he belongs in the league and is aching to prove it. The rest of the spring and summer will decide if this is the time and the place that happens for him.