Chicago Bears have 'big plan' for Velus Jones Jr., whose speed, versatility are key assets

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Velus Jones Jr. walked into Halas Hall for his first day of work and left a strong impression on his new coaches.

The wide receiver, whom the Chicago Bears drafted 71st overall, wore a suit and brought his own whiteboard to meetings. He came across prepared, aiming to prove his all-in approach and age as a soon-to-be 25-year-old rookie will be an asset for a thin position group.

“I’m all about my business,” Jones said. “I was young, but now that I’m older I realize what’s at stake, and this is the best job in the world.

“They’re getting a guy that’s mature. I don’t care much about partying. ... My mind is screwed on right, and so they’re definitely getting a mature guy that’s all about his business and is going to help this team in any way possible.”

Jones was the only receiver Chicago drafted with its 11 picks last month, which was somewhat of a surprise considering the emphasis on surrounding second-year quarterback Justin Fields with as many weapons as possible. Jones was taken ahead of several wideouts with considerably more offensive production, like Khalil Shakir, Jalen Tolbert and Calvin Austin III.

Over the course of a six-year college career -- the NCAA allowed an extra year during the pandemic -- that began at USC in 2016 before Jones transferred to Tennessee to have a bigger role as a wide receiver during his final two seasons, the 6-foot, 200-pound receiver/return man developed into a versatile weapon on offense and special teams. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Jones was the only FBS player with more than 800 receiving yards, 600 kickoff return yards and 200 punt return yards in 2021. He also had seven receiving touchdowns and returned a kickoff for a score. It was by far his best year in terms of offensive production after totaling 627 receiving yards and four touchdowns combined during his five previous seasons.

Bears general manager Ryan Poles stopped short of comparing the rookie to San Francisco’s do-it-all Deebo Samuel, but he envisions the ability to line Jones up “anywhere” to pay dividends. That was reflected during rookie minicamp as Jones was switched from the backfield to the slot to the outside.

“I was talking to [Bears offensive coordinator] Luke [Getsy] the other day about the special attributes that [Jones] has, and he’s got a big plan for him,” coach Matt Eberflus said. “Let’s start out at receiver and then let’s see what he can do, moving him around to different spots and getting him the ball, because he is an explosive athlete.”

Chicago will continue to sort out its wide receiver depth chart when the full squad begins OTAs next week. While trying to figure out where to align the likes of Darnell Mooney and recent free-agent signings Byron Pringle and Equanimeous St. Brown, Jones’ speed could be a factor in determining whether his best fit is as an X-receiver. His 4.31-second 40-yard dash was the fourth-fastest at the NFL combine.

“I mean he can handle this league, you can see that already,” Getsy said. “Then the speed just jumped at you on the tape. When that guy gets the ball in his hands, he looks like 4.3 on the field. Not many guys can do that, and I think that is what stood out about this guy. He has a chance to score every time he touches the ball.”

As a plan for Jones begins to take shape on offense, his special teams impact feels imminent. Jones earned SEC co-special teams player of the year after averaging 132.5 all-purpose yards per game in 2021, which included 27.3 yards per kick return and 15.1 yards per punt return. Chicago special teams coordinator Richard Hightower said he anticipates Jones competing for both jobs this offseason. And for Jones, honing his craft as a return specialist is what he believes will help him in his development as a receiver.

Finding dynamic return specialists became a priority for Chicago after parting ways with wide receiver Jakeem Grant and running back Tarik Cohen this offseason. The Bears prioritized players who aren’t just limited to the positions they play on offense or defense. And for Jones, honing his craft as a returner is what he believes will help him in his development as a receiver.

"I would say it's really a blessing,” Jones said. “I want to win games, and I want to help this coaching staff win games ... any way I can affect the game, definitely in the return game and as a receiver. I'm blessed that I can do both because I can impact the game in different ways. So I'm really excited about that."