Marvin Jones Is Excelling Despite a Very Unique Style
Marvin Jones isn’t typically a name thrown around when talking about the upper echelon of wide receivers in the NFL. During his five-year career, there’s really been no reason for him to be. He’s been fine.
Last year, his first with the Detroit Lions after three with the Cincinnati Bengals, he set a career high of 930 yards on just 55 receptions -- 31 players had more receiving yards, 67 players had more receptions and 48 players scored more than his 4 receiving touchdowns.
This season, his raw statistics aren’t much more impressive. He has 34 receptions, which is tied for 56th in the league. He’s better in receiving yards, where his 537 rank 19th, and he already has 5 receiving touchdowns, which ties for the 8th-most. He’s only averaging 0.1 more receptions per game than he did last season, and he’s below his 2016 rates in yards per game (59.7 compared to 62.0) and yards per reception (15.8 against 16.9).
But thanks to the touchdowns and timing of some of his catches, Jones is one of the most efficient wide receivers in the league this season by our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. Among 41 receivers with at least 50 targets, Jones ranks first in Reception NEP per target (RNEP/T) at 0.87. A whopping 94 percent of his receptions have been successful, which we describe as a play that positively impacts NEP and is labeled as Success Rate.
What’s more surprising than Jones being the league’s most efficient receiver by NEP is how he’s done it. Per the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, no receiver gets less average cushion by a defender off the line of scrimmage than Jones, and only one receiver creates less average separation from a defender on his targets. So, to sum up those two sentences, defenders play up against Jones at the line of scrimmage, and he’s done little to create separation afterwards. Yet, here we are, with Jones as the league’s most efficient receiver.
Let’s start by looking at the cushion. Typically, cornerbacks will play up against a wide receiver if that receiver either isn’t physical enough to gain leverage or not fast enough to run past them down the field for a big play. That’s not really the case for Jones, though. Jones ran a 4.46 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, and while that’s not blazing fast, it’s enough to be in the 71st percentile among wide receivers. It’s also translatable speed on the field. Over the past season and a half, only seven receivers have more receptions of over 20 yards than Jones’s 26.
It’s not like Jones is taking little dump-offs and running after the catch, which might be a thought in Jim Bob Cooter’s West Coast offense. That role belongs to Golden Tate, who leads wide receivers in yards after the catch this season. Instead, Jones is credited for 33.64 percent of his team’s air yards, the 12th-highest figure in the league. Of the 31 receivers who get at least a quarter of their team’s air yards, only Amari Cooper is also among the most closely defended receivers off the line.
Jones also gets nearly half a yard less cushion off the line than the next lowest receiver. Jones is at 3.9 yards, while former teammate Mohamed Sanu is next at 4.4. Of the next five receivers with the least cushion, only Sammy Watkins has matched Jones’s production on targets, but the close coverage has caused Watkins to not be targeted as often in the wide open Los Angeles Rams' offense.
This isn’t a one-year blip for Jones, either. Next Gen Stats only go back to 2016, but last season, Jones again had the lowest average cushion at 3.8 yards.
Now, to the separation. Only Alshon Jeffery has been closer to a defender on his targets this season than Jones. The two of them are the only two receivers to average within two yards of a defender on targets. Both Jeffrey and Jones have 34 receptions to this point in the season, but Jeffery has been the intended receiver on 9 more passes. The Philadelphia Eagles' receiver also gets an extra yard of cushion off the line compared to Jones.
Among the receivers with the lowest average separation, only Kelvin Benjamin has been close to Jones’ efficiency, but Benjamin gets 6.2 yards of cushion off the line, so he basically runs himself into coverage. He also just got traded, and the Carolina Panthers put together their best offensive performance of the year in their first game without him.
Again, this isn’t new for Jones. Last year, he was tied for the third-lowest average separation at two yards (with Allen Robinson and Devin Funchess). Benjamin and Dez Bryant led (?) the way at 1.8. Not exactly the embodiment of speed at the position in that group.
Why Neither Matters
When the term “open even when he’s covered” gets lazily thrown around, it’s typically applied to gigantic receivers. But really, a certain amount of skill is needed to convert that type of coverage into a catch. Just as many big wide receivers could be considered covered when they’re open. Jones, though, really is the ultimate "open when he’s covered" receiver. It’s part Jones’ skill and part trust from Matthew Stafford.
The pair has mastered the back shoulder throw, which they run both in the end zone and, really, anywhere on the field of play, like they did here against Kevin King and the Green Bay Packers in Week 9 (top of the screen).
Jones has a remarkable ability to adjust to the ball in the air, which makes these types of throws more effective. Against the New Orleans Saints in Week 6, he scored against cornerback Ken Crawley -- who has played just as well as rookie Marshon Lattimore, to much less attention -- by adjusting to the ball in the air while also drawing pass interference (bottom of screen).
This isn't how a typical wide receiver succeeds in the NFL, but Jones has made a habit of making plays with defenders draped over him from the snap. He has the trust of his quarterback, and the skill to justify it.
The Lions are hanging around the playoff hunt thanks to their passing offense. Detroit ranks 12th in schedule-adjusted Passing NEP per play and just 30th in Adjusted Rushing NEP per play. Right now, we have the Lions with just a 34 percent chance of making the playoffs, due to the backlog of teams with a winning record in the NFC. If Detroit is going to make a run, it’s going to be through the air, and Jones will play a big part, whether he’s covered or not.