FOXBOROUGH — After all seven rounds of the 2014 NFL draft were in the books, the New England Patriots had yet to address their glaring lack of depth at tight end.
It did not take them long to get on the phone with the agents of several tight ends that went undrafted, and East Carolina tight end Justin Jones was among the three tight ends and nine total undrafted free-agents they signed.
Jones stands apart from the group, as any 6-foot-8, 274-pound tight end should.
The big man took an unconventional path to the NFL — East Carolina declared him ineligible for his senior season in 2013 — but he is grateful for the opportunity to play in New England, where tight ends always seem to be at the center of discussion.
“Oh man, it’s — honestly, it couldn’t be a better fit for me, personally,” he told reporters at Gillette Stadium on Thursday. “All the teams around the league use their tight ends in different ways, but we’ve all seen the proven system and it works here. Coach [Bill] Belichick loves utilizing the tight end, and he believes that we’re guys that create mismatches, and we can get open, and we can use that to the best of our ability.”
The undrafted free-agent process can be a whirlwind. Immediately after the draft, teams begin calling the agents of players that were not selected. With multiple teams making offers, an undrafted prospect could have his choice of landing spots.
With question marks on the Patriots’ roster at tight end, Jones saw an opportunity to land with a team that not only uses its tight ends frequently, but also has a need at his position.
“I got a couple of calls afterwards,” he said, “[but] with this decision to come here, it was really a no-brainer, man. As far as my skill set is concerned and the way that the opportunities that I could possibly have here with the recent things that have been going on, it couldn’t be a better fit for me.”
Not only had Jones eyed the Patriots as a preferred landing spot, but the Patriots had eyed him throughout his career at East Carolina.
“The Patriots have been, to my knowledge, keeping up with me throughout most of my career in college,” he said. “They have always shown interest in me, and been interested in how my career went. They were constantly in contact with me and my agent throughout the draft. I didn’t do any individual workouts, but like I said, it wasn’t kinda out of nowhere.”
It makes sense why, given his freakish size which he uses to wall off defenders and make tough catches in traffic. He showed some athletic potential, running a 4.90-second 40-yard dash, a 6.88-second three-cone drill and posting a 38-inch vertical jump at Detroit’s Regional Scouting Combine in March.
Those measurables didn’t translate to production in college, where Jones finished with 52 receptions for 598 yards and 12 touchdowns in a three-year span, but he has moldable tools.
Those traits will need to be molded in a number of different ways. The Patriots’ offense asks its tight ends to block, catch, and line up all over the field; Jones knows he will be asked to dip into his full complement of skills to fit in.
“Right now, I’m trying to learn everything,” Jones said of whether he would be lining up as an in-line tight end like Rob Gronkowski or a move tight end like Aaron Hernandez. “It is a lot. Around here, the tight end has to be versatile, has to be able to play a little bit in the backfield in addition to playing some stand-up as well. Again, it’s all something that I believe is part of my toolbox and coach Belichick believes it’s part of my toolbox. If he didn’t, then I don’t think I’d be in this position.”
It’s a lot to learn, though, and the rookies are on a time crunch with the draft being pushed back by two weeks. Fellow rookie, Jimmy Garoppolo, said the Patriots playbook was like learning a different language, and Jones agrees with that assessment.
“Yeah, it’s definitely a new language,” he said. “Even a route as simple as a 10-yard out route may have a different name, a different concept here. Again, you know, football’s just football at the end of the day, but definitely picking up on terminology and picking up on the schemes and things like that, reasons why the plays are the way they are. The more you can understand all those things, I think the quicker you can adjust to all this.”
He’ll face a higher level of competition at the NFL level than he did in Conference USA, but he said that the Patriots’ playbook could be the biggest adjustment he has to make. Luckily for him, he has a great mentor in Gronkowski.
Jones’ opportunities with New England are twofold: to learn from one of the best tight ends in the league and to make a roster that is thin at his position.
“I couldn’t be in a better position, especially here in New England, where they have a deficiency at tight end,” he reiterated. “Having, again, the opportunity to learn from the greatest in the league right now. I’ve been watching Gronk forever. I played against DJ Williams when he was with Arkansas. I played against him in the Liberty Bowl in Memphis. All the vets have been really cordial, really friendly with us. They’re all willing to help us learn. It’s not really a ‘ah he’s coming to replace me’ atmosphere. Everyone’s really cool.”
That atmosphere could take a turn in a more competitive direction as the 2014 season draw closer. The training camp battles will heat up in the summer months, and Jones could find himself competing with DJ Williams once again — only this time, with a roster spot on the line.