NFL’s new kickoff rule could give Bears’ Velus Jones Jr. new life

New rule is ‘big for somebody like me,’ Jones said

Chicago Bears wide receiver Velus Jones Jr. (12) walks off the field after the 12-10 win against the Minnesota Vikings of an NFL football game Monday, Nov. 27, 2023, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Abbie Parr)

LAKE FOREST – One play after throwing an interception over the middle of the field during 7-on-7, Bears quarterback Caleb Williams lofted a 50-yard deep ball. With the flick of a wrist, the throw effortlessly arched down into the outstretched arms of receiver Velus Jones Jr. in the end zone.

For Jones, it was the first deep ball he caught from Williams during team drills this spring. It might have been the best throw from Williams all spring.

“Honestly, I was looking forward to it for a while,” Jones told Shaw Local. “Obviously, I ran downfield a lot of times, but that was like the first one I got from him. So yeah, that felt really good.”

During OTAs and minicamp in the spring, the first-team offense will mix up the receiver combinations quite frequently. Jones eagerly awaited his chance to be on the receiving end of a Williams deep ball.

For the 27-year-old Jones, it could be an uphill battle at the receiver position in 2024 after the team added Keenan Allen and Rome Odunze over the offseason. The Bears traded for Allen and drafted Odunze with the No. 9 overall pick.

That could spell trouble for Jones, who only played 8.79% of offensive snaps during his second pro season in 2023. At the same time, though, the NFL may have blessed him with a fresh opportunity thanks to its new kickoff rule.

In an effort to keep the play in the game and reduce injuries, the league adopted a rule similar to what the XFL used in 2023.

Rather than players lining up on opposite sides of the field and running full speed at one another, the vast majority of the players will line up in close proximity at the receiving team’s 35- and 40-yard lines [thus reducing full-speed collisions]. The kicker still will kick from his own 35-yard line, as before. The receiving team can place two players in the “landing zone” between the goal line and the 20-yard line.

The receiving team’s other nine players line up between the 30- and 35-yard line and the kicking team’s remaining 10 players line up at the 40-yard line. None of those players can move until the football lands on the ground or is caught by one of the receiving players.

A ball kicked into the end zone and downed results in the receiving team getting the ball at the 30-yard line [previously it was the 25-yard line]. Any kick short of the landing zone will result in the ball being placed at the 40.

In 2023, only 22% of NFL kickoffs were returned by the receiving team – a record low. The NFL estimates the new rule will result in 50-60% of kickoffs being returned.

For Jones, that could be a lifeline to a roster spot.

“I feel like it’s big for somebody like me that’s still working hard, finding his role,” Jones said. “So that was major. That was huge, and I feel like I can really be effective for Chicago when it comes to that because I’ve been doing kick returns since park league football. So it’s an instinct thing.”

In 2022, Jones averaged 27.6 yards per kickoff return, which ranked fourth among NFL return men. In 2023, so few kicks were returned that only two players reached the minimum 20 returns in order to qualify for that stat. The year prior, 19 players had 20 or more returns.

The numbers from his rookie season indicate that Jones is an elite kick return man. He has also never lost a fumble on his 38 career kickoff returns [punt returns are another matter]. So while some fans might wonder why the Bears are keeping a receiver who played fewer than 9% of the offensive plays last season, the kick return rule changes everything.

“I knew a lot of special teams coordinators respected me,” Jones said of last season. “I would talk to some of them before the game and they’d say how hard I run and just keep being me. They gave me a lot of credit. I knew when they did that they were going to kick it out the end zone. So it was really frustrating.”

[Opponents] gave me a lot of credit. I knew when they did that they were going to kick it out the end zone. So it was really frustrating.”

—  Velus Jones Jr., Bears kickoff return specialist

Jones had only 16 returns in 17 games last season. Four of them came in the season finale at Green Bay. He averaged 28.3 yards per return that afternoon, with a long of 34 yards. For the season, he averaged 27.2 yards per return, just a hair under his elite pace in 2022.

The wild card here is that nobody knows how NFL teams will approach these new kickoff rules. Coaches and players have mentioned pretty much every idea possible. But until preseason games begin in August, it’s a guessing game.

Asked about the new rule this spring, Bears special teams coordinator Richard Hightower brought up Jones and said it could be a huge opportunity for him to showcase his talents.

“A guy like that with his type of skill set, with the speed and the power that he has, and he’s coming full speed ahead at you, it’s like a damn freight train running at you,” Hightower said. “And he’s going to get an opportunity to touch the ball three or four more times a game. And we all know he’s a very dynamic player with the ball in his hands.”

Jones, a third-round draft pick in 2022, caught a lot of flak as a rookie after he had two key fumbles on punt returns. Some fans also might be frustrated by his lack of production on offense [just 11 career receptions and 281 yards from scrimmage over 26 games].

But the fact is, if kickoff returns really are back, Jones doesn’t necessarily need a role on offense in order to keep a roster spot.

“Ever since I was a kid, I knew I was special,” Jones said. “I’m really good with the ball in my hands. You can go back and watch my film at Tennessee. I’m very confident in who I am and I feel like everything has something to do with timing. Just put in the hard work you can, control what you can control, and God will take care of the rest. Honestly. And so I’m doing that.”

Jones could be the type of player that HBO’s “Hard Knocks” might want to feature this summer. He has dealt with on-field adversity in the past and he’s potentially fighting for a spot on the 53-man roster.

For fans wondering, Jones isn’t shying away from any spotlights.

“That’s fine with me,” Jones said when asked about the show. “I mean, it’s not going to change who I am, it’s not going to change how I attack the day. Yeah, I’m just going to be me. My personality, the energy I bring to the room, just be who I am.”

Sean Hammond

Sean Hammond

Sean is the Chicago Bears beat reporter for the Shaw Local News Network. He has covered the Bears since 2020. Prior to writing about the Bears, he covered high school sports for the Northwest Herald and contributed to Friday Night Drive. Sean joined Shaw Media in 2016.