EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. –TJ Jones joined the Giants on July 27 as a much-needed extra wide receiver for a group that had been thinned by injuries. The five-year veteran simply hoped to earn a spot on the regular-season roster. Now he might have an opportunity to be a vital offensive contributor in the first quarter of the season.
The Giants need wideouts to step up in the absence of Golden Tate, who will miss the season’s first four games while serving a suspension for violating the NFL policy on performance enhancing substances. Although he is a relative newcomer, Jones is confident he can help fill that production void.
“I think that the opportunity, when it’s presented, you make it what you want it to,” Jones said today. “If you come in here (as) just a camp body, then that’s what you put out on film. You won’t believe you have a shot, so you won’t put your best foot forward. But if you come in with the mindset that I’m here to earn a spot, to earn a job whether it’s here to put out good film or if I were let go for someone else to see good film, that’s on you. So, I came to make the best of the opportunity and to definitely not let the timing of it affect the way I approached it.”
Tate’s 611 career regular-season receptions are more than the combined total of the other 11 wideouts on the current roster. But coach Pat Shurmur and those receivers are confident they will be valuable targets for Eli Manning and help the team win games.
“It’s unfortunate,” Shurmur said of Tate’s absence. “There are times when you have injuries, and you have to adjust on the fly. This is a situation where it’s a suspension, so we adjust on the fly. It is just that simple.”
The wideouts Shurmur is looking at in the first month include Sterling Shepard, Cody Latimer, Bennie Fowler, Russell Shepard, rookie Darius Slayton and Jones.
“I’m very confident in this group of wide receivers,” Shepard said. “We’ve had guys go down at the beginning of camp. Corey (Coleman) went down, I went down, and guys just had that next man up mentality. That’s what we need around here. We’ve got ballers in the room. Everybody knows the system, everybody knows where they’re supposed to be, and everybody knows how to get open. That’s what we do as receivers. That’s what we work on every day. I’m not worried about it. I know guys are going to step up.”
“We have playmakers everywhere in the room,” Jones said. “If you look at our practice film, even the game film, there’s never not somebody making a crazy catch or a great block or another touchdown. Between all of us, there’s no doubt in my mind that we’ll be able to make the plays that we need to make when our numbers are called, and definitely lead our team the way that we’re supposed to.”
Tate has been lining up both inside and outside, and Shurmur said the other receivers have that same versatility.
“I think the players are somewhat interchangeable,” he said. “Golden Tate is a player that obviously works well in the slot, but he also works well outside. We have other players that can do that. Shep is a guy that’s worked well outside and then worked well in the slot. You make adjustments. Really when you talk about skill players, you don’t have the same skill players for all 16 games. Those are the adjustments you make each week. We’re aware of the fact that we won’t have him for a month, so we adjust.”
Jones should help them do that. He played his first four NFL seasons for the Detroit Lions, who selected him on the sixth round of the 2014 NFL Draft, from Notre Dame. One of his teammates was Tate, who, Jones said, “took me under his wing.” In 42 games, including nine starts, Jones caught 64 passes for 814 yards and four touchdowns, and he also returned 21 punts and 14 kickoffs. But the Lions declined to re-sign him this year, and Jones was jobless until the Giants signed him.
Did that put a chip on his shoulder?
“No, being a sixth-round round pick put the chip on my shoulder,” he said. “Having to really earn your spot every year, no matter what you did, knowing that they were going to try to draft someone to possibly replace you or bring in a free agent to replace you. The sixth-round pick really put the chip on my shoulder, and it’s never left.”
It has served him well. Jones quickly caught the attention of his new teammates by seemingly catching every pass thrown in his direction. In the preseason-opening victory last week against the Jets, Jones led the Giants in both receptions (six) and yards (72) and caught a 31-yard touchdown pass from Kyle Lauletta.
“We signed him because we liked him,” Shurmur said. “We felt like he was a guy that could come in, compete, and make our team, regardless of who we had on the roster. It was more of replacing Corey at that time. When you have a player that’s going to miss a month, then it kind of elevates the guys behind him. One of those guys may be a guy that’s here for a month until Golden gets back.”
“That guy does a great job of getting open, winning one-on-one coverage, and catching the ball,” Shepard said of Jones. “Just have to keep it moving and keep rolling every day.”
That is Jones’ intention.
“I think (the game against the Jets) was a good stepping stone for me,” he said. “To come out, make some plays, show that I didn’t let the timing of the signing, when some people could say, ‘He didn’t have enough time to learn the playbook,’ things like that, affect me in a negative way. It felt good to make plays. Now I just have to capitalize and make plays every week, every day in practice, and keep progressing.”
The Giants are counting on it.