With free agents scrambling to land contracts since the labor dispute ran right up until training camp openings that summer of 2011, Jones re-signed with the Packers for a modest $9.6 million over three years.
What will the market bring him this time around?
Well, this much is known: Jones, making the rounds this week on national media outlets, has at least thought about the prospects of playing for another team and another quarterback after seven years in Green Bay. He even mentioned a few quarterbacks by name (Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson), but also said his preference would be to return to play with Aaron Rodgers.
"Priority No. 1 is taking care of my family," said Jones on NFL Network's "Total Access" show. "Priority No. 2 is that if I'm not able to go back to Green Bay, to find a good fit with a good quarterback and people that are trying to win and for me to be a part of that and try to help them win some ball games."
According to Jones, the Packers have not made a contract offer, nor have there been any discussions. The soon-to-be 30-year-old (March 31) has a resume that stands up to any of the wide receivers expected to hit the free agent market, much like ex-teammate Greg Jennings did a year ago. Jennings turned 30 during last season but was coming off an injury-plagued final season with the Packers in 2012.
Jones is coming off another productive season, made more impressive by overcoming two bad injuries – first a knee on Oct. 13 at Baltimore that sidelined him for two games and then broken ribs at the end of the season that he played through. Still, Jones started 15 of the Packers' 17 games and in the regular season caught 59 passes for a career-high 817 yards. And even as his targets have increased the past two seasons, his drops have gone down. In 2013, he had just two drops in 88 targets and in 2012 just three in 93 (according to ProFootballFocus.com) over the regular season.
In 2012, Jones caught a career-high 64 passes in his first season as a full-time starter. His 14 touchdowns led the NFL and several highlight-reel catches put him in the national spotlight.
The free agent market for wide receivers is hardly top-loaded but multiple teams that have ample cap space could use a starting wide receiver. The Packers are not necessarily one of those teams despite meeting the cap room criteria (estimated at more than $33 million). They have 17 other free agents about to hit the market and future considerations, as well.
At Jones' position, Jordy Nelson (under a four-year, $13.2 million contract) and Randall Cobb (under his rookie contract of four years and $3.2 million) are scheduled to become free agents after the 2014 season and are in line for much heftier contracts. It will be difficult and costly to keep all three for Rodgers, who himself signed a five-year, $110 million extension last April.
A wild-card to the mix is Jarrett Boykin, who emerged from obscurity in 2013. His stretch of play with Rodgers out was eye-opening and potentially roster-altering for the wide receiver position. In those eight games from the Nov. 4 Chicago Bears game to the Dec. 22 Pittsburgh Steelers game, with three different quarterbacks, Boykin and Jones were about equal statistically. Each caught 33 passes over that stretch, yet Boykin did it in three less targets. He had 11 more receiving yards (438 to 427) than Jones and caught two touchdowns to Jones' one.
Boykin, who moved into the No. 3 receiving spot with Cobb sidelined by injury, was one of the Packers' biggest bargains last season at a salary of just $480,000. He is scheduled to make $570,000 next season before becoming a restricted free agent.
The Packers have five other receivers on their roster - Sederrik Cunningham, 2013 seventh-round pick Kevin Dorsey, Alex Gillett, Chris Harper and Myles White. Only Harper (four games) and White (seven games) spent time on the Packers' active roster in 2013. None had NFL game experience before 2013.
Jones had much less fire power headed into his last contract negotiations in 2011. Then he was more of a role player for the Packers (just eight starts in the three years after his 2007 rookie season) despite being an integral part of the Super Bowl team.
For what it is worth, last year's top 10 contracts for wide receivers in free agency averaged $4.4 million a year. Topping the list was Mike Wallace's deal with the Miami Dolphins for $60 million over five years and Jennings' deal with the Minnesota Vikings for $45 million over five years. After that, the deals cooled significantly with Danny Amendola getting $28.5 million over five years from the New England Patriots, Wes Welker $12 million for two years from the Denver Broncos and Brandon Gibson $9.8 million for three years from the Dolphins to round out the top five.
Top Free-Agent Receivers
Scout.com's unrestricted free agent rankings for wide receivers:
— Eric Decker, Denver Broncos
— Golden Tate, Seattle Seahawks
— Hakeem Nicks, New York Giants
— Julian Edelman, New England Patriots
— James Jones, Green Bay Packers
— Jerome Simpson, Minnesota Vikings
— Jerricho Cotchery, Pittsburgh Steelers
— Robert Meachem, New Orleans Saints
— Andre Roberts, Arizona Cardinals
— Emmanuel Sanders, Pittsburgh Steelers
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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org