RICHMOND, Va. — The first thing you notice about Justin Jones is his size. He's a mammoth of a man, standing 6-8 and weighing 275 pounds.
His wing span reminds one of the California Condor, it's freakishly long and, along with his towering height, allows him to create separation in close quarters.
That's your first glimpse takeaway.
But as training camp has worn on, Jones has shown himself to be quicker than his 4.9 40-yard dash speed would suggest, and his hands have been a fantastic presence throughout the offseason, building himself up a reputation as someone to watch in each practice.
On Monday, during 11-on-11s, he reached back and snatched a Jimmy Garoppolo pass one-handed over the middle of the field in traffic. It was the highlight catch of the day for the Patriots in joint practices with Washington at Bon Secours Training Center in Richmond, Va.
"I knew it was Cover 1," he told me. "I was hoping, I knew we had seams on that route, so I was just hoping that Jimmy put it on the right shoulder so I didn’t get blown up too bad by that safety sitting over the top."
Like he needs to worry about that.
For all of Jones's size, speed, and impressive hands (how many basket catches can he make in one camp?), he still is considered raw. And having finishing his time at East Carolina on a disappointing note as academically ineligible (52 career receptions, 598 yards, 12 touchdowns), the undrafted rookie is equally unproven. In camp, he has struggled at times blocking by standing upright too often. But he has improved dramatically. And as he has continued to improve in the trenches, the miraculous catches he has had have come more often. These are the expectations he has set for himself, improving every day and making catches no one else can.
"I think it’s expected out of everyone on the field, be it me or any other receivers or tight ends to make that [one-handed] catch," Jones said. "Sometimes you gotta help out the quarterback the same way they gotta help us out. As far as expectations go, I set 'em high for myself so it’s something I expect to try and make every time."
Given how much help Jones gave Garoppolo on that pass, I pondered whether he considered catches and drops to mirror the errors, or non errors, of a baseball player, meaning anything out of the routine diving, one-handed, etc. — couldn't be considered a drop if it's not hauled in.
"[No]. If it hits your hands, you’re supposed to catch it," he said. "Regardless of any of that. If you can get your hand on it, then you gotta expect to catch the ball. Even if it’s only one hand. A catch is a catch. So if you’re able to get one hand on it, then likely you’re able to get two. So you can either A) catch it with one hand or B) get the other hand up."
That's something Patriots coaches have drilled into him. And with the help of fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski, Jones has been able to use his body better as well, much like he did in his former basketball playing days. (Side note: Gronkowski was a pretty good basketball player himself.)
"A lot of times, it just comes to using our bodies and using a little bit of a box-out and post-up when we turn around and stuff like that," Jones told Boston.com two weeks ago. "Then in the red zone, you know, Gronk's a monster, so something that you get excited about is being split out. You see all the things you do with him and that's something that really impacted my decision to come here."
In Richmond, he's getting a new test with stellar pass rushers in Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo, one that he's positive is another step in his ability to improve.
"I know the Redskins are a fiery bunch, they always have been," he said. "Their defense is an experienced group. I don’t think any of them have been in the league less than three years. As far as their front 11 go, they all have seen a lot of football, played a lot of football. Great chance for me to come out and learn, get a couple different looks on defense. Orakpo and Kerrigan [are] great guys on the outside. I got a chance to go up against them a little bit today and get work on. And if you’re trying to practice against some of the best rushers in the league, there’s no better place to do it than here."
Jones's competition at tight end continues to be Patriots newcomers D.J. Williams and rookie Asa Watson. It's clear that all three have gotten extended opportunities to showcase their skills, but Jones and Williams have stuck out. Williams runs seamless routes and has been thoroughly consistent. Jones, a physical freak, has made wowing plays and has bettered his blocking skills. It's the kind of bottom of the depth chart training camp battle that makes the football offseason so compelling, particularly with leading tight ends Gronkowski and Michael Hoomanawanui sidelined.
So can Jones win out? Or will Williams? Maybe the Patriots can keep both? Who knows. It's probably best to wait until Thursday's preseason game at Fedex Field to get a better handle on all of that. But it's clear that Jones is turning heads and making outstanding catches. It doesn't hurt that the rest of his game is improving, too.