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Stafford: TJ Jones has breakout potential

During a recent Q&A session at a Pepsi event at Ford Field, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford was asked to name one player on offense who could be poised for a breakout season in 2016.

He was obviously going to start talking about free-agent pickup Marvin Jones or running back Ameer Abdullah or possibly tight end Eric Ebron, right?

Not so fast.

Stafford paused for a moment and then proceeded to talk about third-year receiver TJ Jones for the next few minutes.

Stafford went through some of the big catches Jones had down the stretch last season, and how much Jones has improved from his lost rookie season of 2014 because of injury.

"I definitely appreciate him thinking of me in that manner," Jones told when told about Stafford's comments.

"It's definitely satisfying when you can tell over the last two years, personally, that I've made strides in my game on and off the field. When you see other people in your position group or even the quarterback starting to notice it's definitely letting you know that you're heading in the right direction with the work that you're doing.

"If anything, now I have to step it up another notch to what I was doing in my regimen and get that much better."

After missing his entire rookie season with shoulder and nerve troubles, Jones was essentially a rookie on the field for the Lions last season.

It wasn't until late last year, when Lance Moore suffered an ankle injury, that Jones got the opportunity to contribute on a weekly basis. Jones didn't waste the opportunity, either. He did enough in those first couple weeks of an increased role on offense that when Moore returned to the lineup, Jones replaced Corey Fuller as the fifth receiver on the active roster the last three weeks of the season.

Jones made a terrific 29-yard catch late in Detroit's Week 13 game vs. Green Bay that nearly sealed a win for the Lions, if not for the Packers' Hail Mary heroics.

He was targeted eight times the following week in St. Louis and caught four of those passes for 33 yards.

One week later vs. San Francisco, Jones got into the end zone for the first time as a professional on a 29-yard pass from Stafford.

"I think I always knew when the time came that each week I was going to prepare myself to be ready to make the big play or the clutch catch," Jones said.

"But having that experience and really getting a chance to make a play in a tight situation, or in certain games run 40-plus plays, and get really the feel of how the fatigue breaks down on your body and mind as you get to the fourth quarter, I think that really helped me out more than anything coming into this year."

For Stafford to name Jones as having breakout potential says a lot about the trust he's developing in the third-year receiver in such a short time.

The Lions went out and signed Marvin Jones and Jeremy Kerley in free agency, and the team's leading receiver last year, Golden Tate, is back. But Jones does figure into the team's plans as a potential fourth receiver and a player who could also contribute on special teams.

The team did not select a receiver with any of its 10 picks in last week's NFL Draft.

"He can return for you. He's got return ability," head coach Jim Caldwell said of Jones this offseason. "But then also, he's got a little scat back ability. He can catch screens for you. He can take off and go when he gets a seam.

"We really expect him to come forward and be a little bit more of a prominent threat."

The quarterback and the head coach have lofty expectations for Jones, but they'll never be as high as the expectations Jones has for himself. He's a confident player that endured a rough start to his career, but is finally expected to play a bigger role.

"I was told coming into the league to do as many things as you can," Jones said. "I just try to take pride in knowing and doing as much as I can."

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