Bears’ Velus Jones: ‘I’ve got to make a smarter play’ after muffed punt

Jones’ fumbling has, for the second straight preseason, become a reason for concern during camp. He fumbled the first ball he touched in a preseason game last year, then coughed it up three times during the regular season.

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Bears wide receiver Velus Jones Jr. (12) loses the ball after being tackled by Titans safety Mike Brown (44) while trying to retrieve a punt during Saturday’s preseason game.

Bears wide receiver Velus Jones Jr. (12) loses the ball after being tackled by Titans safety Mike Brown (44) while trying to retrieve a punt during Saturday’s preseason game.

Melissa Tamez/AP

Velus Jones had just explained what happened in the Bears’ preseason opener Saturday — he muffed a punt that he decided to let bounce, then tried to catch on a hop — when he was asked about the makeup of the team’s receiver room.

Last year at this time, the Bears had the weakest receiver corps in the NFL. Since then, they’ve traded for DJ Moore and Chase Claypool and drafted Tyler Scott. Jones needs to shore up his special-teams play just to make the team, right?

‘‘Honestly, if you wanna be real,’’ Jones told the Sun-Times on Monday, ‘‘I respect every guy, from DJ to Chase, [Darnell Mooney], [Equanimeous St. Brown], Dante [Pettis] and Tyler, the rookie, and stuff like that. I know my specialty, and I’m pretty sure the coaches know that I’m real special when the ball gets in my hands.’’

The problem is making sure the ball lands in his hands without incident.

Jones’ muffing/fumbling has, for the second consecutive preseason, become a reason for concern during camp. He fumbled the first ball he touched in a preseason game as a rookie last year, then lost the ball three times during the regular season.

Jones returned five regular-season punts last season. He mishandled two of them — both in the fourth quarter of losses to the Giants and Commanders — then lost his job.

The Bears spent the offseason making sure Jones focused on ball security. Everyone from special-teams coordinator Richard Hightower to coach Matt Eberflus to receivers coach Tyke Tolbert to quarterbacks/receivers assistant Omar Young has stood behind Jones and watched him field punts in practice.

‘‘It takes a village,’’ Hightower said last week.

The key, Hightower and Eberflus have said countless times, is for Jones to get to the spot where the punt will land before the ball gets there, set himself and make the catch.

That didn’t happen on either of Jones’ punt returns Saturday against the Titans.

The Bears lined up Jones deep both times, cognizant that Titans punter Ryan Stonehouse has one of the strongest legs in the league. Both times Stonehouse left the punt short — Jones said Stonehouse told him after the game he was having trouble reading the wind at Soldier Field — and Jones had to play the hop.

‘‘I’m never gonna run up and try to grab a ball if I didn’t beat it to the spot,’’ Jones said. ‘‘Bad things can happen.’’

The first time, Jones caught the punt on a bounce and returned it seven yards. The second time, he charged the ball, watched it hit only two yards away, then tried to catch it on the hop.

‘‘Just being a competitor, trying to make a football play,’’ he said.

As he reached for the ball, he was hit by Titans safety Mike Brown. The ball bounced off Brown and eventually into the arms of linebacker Luke Gifford.

Jones wouldn’t get another chance, though he said the coaches were ready to send him in later in the second quarter had the Titans not marched to score.

‘‘It’s all about awareness, being smart,’’ Jones said. ‘‘All week, all camp, I’ve been doing a good job catching them, feeling them out, even when we practice in the stadium. I’ve just gotta make a smarter play, even though I’ve got that competitive edge in me and stuff like that. Really proving it to myself and not everybody else.’’

Jones needs to prove it to the front office, too. He was the first offensive player general manager Ryan Poles took in his first draft. The third-round pick offered little on that side of the ball last season, catching seven passes for 107 yards and running nine times for 103 yards. That’s unacceptable.

‘‘I showed glimpses last year and stuff, not getting too much playing time,’’ Jones said. ‘‘Getting in enough and getting my feet wet just a little bit. I know what I’m capable of, and I’m definitely a unique player on this team.’’

Jones ran a 4.31-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine in 2022. Since 2016, only three receivers have been faster. The challenge for the Bears’ coaching staff is to find ways to harness that speed, be it on sweeps, screens or returns. Jones, however, needs to help himself.

Jones didn’t return kickoffs Saturday and wasn’t sure whether he would this preseason, but he ranked third in the NFL with an average of 27.6 yards last season.

‘‘They know the type of player they have in me,’’ he said. ‘‘They know what I’m capable of.’’

Jones has one issue — and confidence isn’t it.

‘‘I don’t care about any outside noise,’’ he said.

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