Bears WR Velus Jones’ up-and-down game shows risk, reward of rookies
It might take awhile for Jones to earn a spot in the offense, but he can be a factor in the return game until then. He nearly fumbled away the opening kickoff Thursday but also had a big return that led to a touchdown.
SEATTLE — Rookies will play a lot for the Bears, and while that’s typically a trait of a season bound for nowhere, it’s also going to be exciting.
The quicker the stars of this draft class take hold of regular roles, the better for the Bears’ future. That road is rife with potholes in the short term, but it’s the quickest way for this team to get where it really needs to be.
Speaking of shortcuts, the fastest route for third-round wide receiver Velus Jones appears to be in the return game. Even among the Bears’ relatively anonymous crew of receivers, it might take a while before they trust him in the offense. But in the meantime, getting the ball in Jones’ hands on special teams is a great start.
“Facts, facts,” Jones told the Sun-Times. “You’ve got to take advantage of that and increase your value by doing multiple things. My value is I’m a good returner and a good receiver. In the return game, I’ll keep doing my thing. And I’ll slowly keep working my way into the offense.”
Jones opened as kick and punt returner for the Bears in their preseason game against the Seahawks on Thursday, then got extended work at receiver with the second- and third-string offense.
His night as returner illustrated perfectly the nature of the risks the Bears will be taking and the rewards they could reap.
He took the opening kickoff — his first time with the ball in live action after missing the preseason opener with an injury — out of the end zone and hit the gas. It was all going fine until he hit the 28-yard line and Seahawks safety Marquise Blair popped the ball loose.
The Bears recovered, and ultimately Justin Fields led them on a modest drive for a field goal. But turning it over on the opening kickoff would be a nightmare in the regular season, and that liability could linger in coach Matt Eberflus’ mind as he finalizes his lineup for the opener against the 49ers.
“I’ve got a short term memory when it comes to a bad play,” Jones said. “I wasn’t the first to fumble and I won’t be the last. If you allow that to creep on you, it’ll affect your next play. And you never know, you’r next play might be your biggest play.”
Well said. Jones made his biggest play soon after, redeeming himself late in the first quarter on a 48-yard punt return.
He took the ball at his own 19 and raced through his blocks to set the Bears up in field-goal range at the Seahawks’ 33. They quickly turned that into a touchdown.
“I like it,” Eberflus said of Jones in the return game. “He’s fast. He’s explosive. That’s a challenge for him because he’s a rookie and he’s going to have to come in and show guys what he can do.”
With question marks all over the roster and uncertainty about the offense, field-flipping plays will be necessary. And giving a high-potential young player like Jones the chance to make them, as opposed to relying on someone like veteran Dante Pettis, is worth it.
Second-round cornerback Kyler Gordon, who also missed the game against the Chiefs because of an injury, made his debut as well. Playing primarily at nickel, he was steady in coverage and blitzed to force Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith into a throwaway.
Safety Jaquan Brisker, the second-rounder who impressed last week, was out with an injury. Another rookie, sixth-round running back Trestan Ebner, exited with an ankle injury after rushing for 29 yards on nine carries.
Elijah Hicks, a seventh-round safety, made a good pitch for himself by recovering a muffed punt near the end of the second quarter for a touchdown to send the Bears into halftime up 17-0.
But Jones is the pivotal pick in this draft class, which was the first for general manager Ryan Poles and Eberflus.
It’s certainly imperative that they get it right with the second-rounders, and perhaps they found a gem in fifth-round left tackle Braxton Jones. But Velus Jones is the one who could solidify this as the foundation of the rebuild.
Poles took a calculated risk when he skipped receivers in the second round to take Gordon and Brisker. Then when he finally jumped at one, it was a 25-year-old who topped 300 yards receiving in a season just once in college.
The rookie class soaring or stumbling will count just as much on Eberflus’ record as it does Poles. It was very evident, for example, that Mitch Trubisky’s tailspin was fully a “collaboration” between general manager Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy.
So far, the rookies are making good use of their opportunities. It’s up to Poles and Eberflus to make sure they keep getting plenty of them — and that they’re ready.