Jones off to a fast start

The Green Bay Packers may have found a play-maker in James Jones, who has been opening the eyes of many observers thus far in training camp.'s Tyler Dunne explains.

When Brett Favre returns to training camp, he will like what he sees.

Maybe not behind him, but certainly to his left and right.

A month ago he publicly voiced his displeasure with the team for not acquiring Randy Moss.

His tone will change. Yes, training camp is receiver-friendly with contact discouraged and tackling prohibited. But great hands are great hands and third round pick James Jones has a first round pair of mitts on him. His progress coupled with a healthy Donald Driver, a healthy Greg Jennings, and a very intriguing bunch behind them will vastly improve Green Bay's passing attack, which ranked a respectable eighth overall in the NFL last year.

If 2005 was the year of patchwork running backs than 2006 was the year of patchwork wide receivers. An ankle injury drastically cooled off Jennings after a blazing four-game streak of 359 yards and three touchdowns, Robert Ferguson spent most of the season on injured reserve with a foot injury, Koren Robinson arrived for a four-game cameo, and out-of-nowhere back-ups Ruvell Martin and Carlyle Holiday were thrown into leading roles ... all equating to Donald Driver getting swallowed with double teams once again.

That was then. This is now. The 2007 training camp group is so competitive, McCarthy has interchanged all 11 receivers with the first team offense in 11-on-11 drills.

Twenty-five years after Bill Walsh invented the West Coast offense, so many variations have evolved that it's almost impossible for a rookie wide receiver to succeed.

But some are a cut above. Last season Jennings defied the odds, producing a rookie campaign far better than that of Packer greats Antonio Freeman and Robert Brooks.

Now it's James Jones who is chewing the ‘learning curve' up and spitting it out. Through four days and six practices, mostly as the team's ‘Z' receiver, he has had only one ball thud off his chest in 11-on-11 work. He snatches the ball out of the air faster than anyone, and turns his body upfield in a hurry.

Pound-for-pound he closely resembles Pittsburgh's Hines Ward, a tough as nails receiver who may only run a 4.6 40-yard dash but feasts on the middle of the field.

In Favre's last practice Sunday before heading to Mississippi for his wife's stepfather's funeral, he got a taste of Jones' potential. It started with an all-too-easy, over the shoulder 30-yard bomb from Favre to Jones. Two plays later, Aaron Rodgers fired a deep drag to Jones who instantly cut toward open field.

Jones has excelled in an area that Green Bay desperately needs help. Last year, the Packers ranked 31st in red zone efficiency. Without a pass-catching tight end, or a big body to settle in zone gaps, Green Bay was forced to settle for three points far too often.

On Tuesday, Jones caught two touchdowns in the team's red zone drill. One was a jump ball in which he leaped and ripped the ball the away right over Patrick Dendy's head. The other was a nine-yard skinny post strike from Paul Thompson.

"He catches the ball when it's thrown to him," said wide receivers coach Jimmy Robinson yesterday. "It sounds simplistic. But he has excellent hands and he catches the ball away from his body. So if he is in a contested situation and you're near him he makes the catch. He adjusts to the ball well. We knew that about him and that is why we drafted him."

The biggest difference between Donald Driver and Javon Walker was attitude. Not just in contract talks, but on the field as well. Driver attacks the ball in traffic, whereas Walker would rather catch it with his body in open space. Jones has 17 more pounds of muscle than Driver and has flashed similar relentlessness.

"He has extreme confidence when he catches the ball," said Robinson, who is in his 18th NFL season. "There are very few guys like that. You can see his build. He is a very thick kid. He has strong arms and forearms. He stops that ball.

Robinson was reluctant to parallel Jones' training camp with Jennings' because Jennings was able to mentally grasp the West Coast offense at such an unusually high pace. Yet, Jones is getting to that point.

"I think he can keep it up if stays on top of the mental part of it. That's the biggest thing. If he's out here thinking and not sure about what he's doing, he's going to struggle. What he's done so far in camp, he's done a good job with that."

Like Jennings, Jones doesn't rock the boat in the locker room. Rather than isolate himself from his competition, Jones can been laughing and joking with the entire group. He reminds reporters every day that he just wants to ‘help the team win' in any way possible.

"I don't try to get into whether I'm competing against [Robert] Ferguson or competing against Jennings," Jones said. "If it's catching 100 balls or catching 10 balls, my main goal is just help this team win."

Jones may be on the straightaway, 30 meters ahead of his competition for the No. 3 wide receiver job. But it's not like Ferguson, Martin, Holiday, and others are dogging it. If Ferguson can stay healthy and the 6-4 Martin continues to develop as a go-to third down threat, Green Bay could assemble a dangerous wide receiver unit.

"We're working together as a unit," Jennings said. "That's the way we're going about it. We have to work together to achieve the goals we have as a receiving corps."

One benefit of the West Coast offense? The pass sets up the run. With so much uncertainty at running back, the Packers can take solace that their passing game is in good shape. In Driver and Jennings the team has two fearless receivers who turn short passes into long gains. Green Bay was second in the entire NFL last season with 2,161 yards after the catch.

Now there may be a third. Jones' play this past week has been staggering. You expect rookies to drop passes early in their career as knowledge pumps into their head every day. The next two weeks will be the ultimate test, as the X's and O's keep piling up.

"So far on the first four days [Jones] has done well," Robinson added. "But as the volume increases it starts to mount up on you. It's a day-to-day thing. As I tell these guys, they are really the only ones who know what level they learn at and how fast they learn."

Tyler Dunne

Tyler Dunne is a student at Syracuse University. He is in Green Bay covering the Packers during training camp for and Packer Report magazine. E-mail him at

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