ALAMEDA, Calif. – Oakland running back Taiwan Jones is in a good place these days, both from a mental standpoint and his role in the Raiders offense.
A fourth-round draft pick in 2011 out of Eastern Washington, Jones has finally reached a comfort level few thought he’d get to after being slowed by injuries earlier in his career and a failed two-year experiment playing defensive back at the behest of former coach Dennis Allen.
Jones is a potentially explosive player this season on an offense featuring potential rookie of the year candidate Amari Cooper. Despite being a backup to starter Latavius Murray, he leads the Raiders in both yards per carry (5.8) and yards per catch (19.0).
Jones, who is the third-leading kickoff returner in the NFL, scored his first career touchdown in last week’s win over the Jets, a 59-yard catch-and-run that has people around the league still buzzing.
“He’s unique,” Raiders offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave said Thursday. “That’s why he’s our kickoff returner. When you have a player like that you try to create another kickoff return or another punt return, get him in space and let them do what their specialty might be.”
Until this year, Jones’ biggest impact was on special teams, where he led the unit in tackles in 2012 and ’13.
One of the final draft picks made by late Hall of Fame owner Al Davis, Jones rarely played on offense during his first two seasons in the NFL and was open to moving to defensive back when approached by Allen two years ago.
When that didn’t work and when Jack Del Rio was hired to take over, the decision was made to move Jones back to offense.
So far it’s worked out well for both sides.
Jones has more carries this season (12) than he had in the past two seasons combined, and his five catches are already a career high. Those numbers figure to increase as Musgrave tries to find new ways to get Jones more involved in the offense.
“Taiwan is more than just an outside runner, so we can put him in for a variation of concepts,” Musgrave said. “The same thing with Latavius. He’s not just a downhill, shoulder-squared runner either, so he’s done a nice job with our outside stuff.”
With Jones’ speed and elusiveness complementing Murray’s power running, the Raiders are 18th overall in total offense heading into Sunday’s game at Pittsburgh. That’s considerable improvement after Oakland ranked last in nearly every meaningful offensive category in 2014.
“I’ve always believed in this team,” Jones said. “Year in and year out, I’ve been telling everybody I want to be part of the turnaround. With Del Rio you’re starting to see this team turn it around. This coaching staff put a lot of trust in me and they see what Al Davis saw. It’s my job to show the fans what Al Davis saw.”
Jones did exactly that against the Jets after catching a dump-off pass from quarterback Derek Carr early in the first quarter. He broke one tackle near the line of scrimmage, made a second defender miss then split two more Jets players with a rapid series of moves before racing into the end zone.
The touchdown gave the Raiders a 22-point lead in a game they wound up winning by 14. For Jones, it was a validation of sorts.
“I’ve always doubted if people had confidence in me or trusted me,” he said. “I never doubted my talent or my ability.”
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