The rise of Taiwan Jones has been something that I have really been keeping an eye on in 2013. The third-year player has had something of a tumultuous past with the Raiders, but through a lot of hard work and opportunistic play, he has quietly developed into one of the Raiders’ strongest overall players. Many casual fans probably don’t know who he is, and with news coming out that he may be seeing snaps at runningback this week, he may be seemingly coming out of nowhere from the depths of Oakland’s roster. It seems fitting to take a closer look at the Raiders’ quiet special teams ace and see just how far he has really come with the Raiders.
Taiwan Jones was a fourth-round selection in Al Davis’ final draft, and the young RB perfectly looked the part of an Al Davis selection: raw, but capable of outrunning anyone on the field…or jumping over a car just because he can. Jones was a very exciting prospect at runningback, but injuries held back his ability to practice. In a limited role behind both Darren McFadden and Michael Bush, this meant that most of Raider Nation never really saw what he was capable of. Despite a fantastic preseason debut against the Saints, Jones never really delivered on his potential, as a combination of ball security issues and injury all but doomed his chances of seeing the field on offense. This was even more apparent in 2012, when second-year RB Jeremy Stewart was activated from the practice squad ahead of giving Taiwan Jones carries for games against the Ravens, Saints, Bengals, and Browns. Jones’ opportunities were quickly dwindling, and many expected this to signal the end of his time with the Raiders.
In an attempt to salvage his career, Taiwan Jones agreed to do something that very few NFL players can do: switch from offense to defense. He pleaded late in 2012 to do whatever it took to get more playing time, even if it meant switching positions and playing cornerback. The switch was radical, no question, but Jones’ history at cornerback from high school and his first year in college. While his build seemed a bit small for an every-down runningback in the NFL, his speed, fluidity, and willingness to hit is ideal for a cornerback role with the team. Combined with the Raiders’ unbelievably bad luck last season with injuries to cornerbacks (remember Huff starting at CB?), the switch was approved. Interestingly enough, Reggie McKenzie actually had Jones listed as a cornerback prospect when he was working with Green Bay in 2011, so the Raiders gambled and hoped that he would eventually be able to make the transition.
The jump almost proved to be too much for Jones, however. Taiwan was even more raw of a cornerback prospect than he was at runningback and stood a very real chance of not even making it to Raiders’ training camp. If Jones was going to make it in the NFL, he was going to have to carve out a path as a special teams star. Even during training camp, Dennis Allen acknowledged that Jones had a difficult time at corner, but the Raiders held onto him and began to see what may be his true calling: special teams. his roster spot seemed safe with him being “one of the best special teams players in this league,” and while that quote was somewhat dismissed at the time, Coach Allen may have been right all along.
Taiwan Jones has been one of the league’s best special teams players this season, and very well could be headed to Hawaii in a few months. Paired with perhaps the league’s strongest legs at both kicker and punter, Jones’ unbelievable speed and hitting power has put Oakland’s special teams among the league’s best, even with a less-than-perfect season from Sebastian Janikowski. Oakland allows just 20.9 yards per kickoff, 4th best in the league, and Jones is regularly downfield to help force even more touchbacks and returns. He was also the player to force the fumble on the game’s opening kickoff against the Giants, displaying just how hard he is capable of hitting. The Raiders’ punt coverage unit hasn’t been as stellar, as their average of yards per punt return is near the bottom of the league, but some of King’s longest punts of the season have been a result of Jones blazing through coverage as a gunner and getting downfield to force fair catches or muffing punts. Watching special teams snaps, Jones almost regularly gets to the returner unless he is double covered off of the snap. Although Oakland has allowed a number of big returns, they still lead the league in average yards per punt at 48.9 and are sixth in net yards per punt at 42.8. Much of this obviously has to do with how stellar Marquette King has been in what is essentially his rookie season, but Jones has proven to be a very valuable asset to the Silver and Black’s special teams.
Pro Bowl players are typically thought of as 1,300-yard rushers or 1,500-yard receivers, but the impact that Taiwan Jones has had on Oakland’s special teams cannot be understated. His hard work and drive to do whatever it takes to help the team is the embodiment of what Reggie McKenzie and Dennis Allen have been preaching with the new Raiders, and it will be very exciting to see if he can perform on offense as well. His stats may not jump off the page as a core special teams player, but Oakland is very lucky to have him on their team.