NEW ORLEANS - Tony Jones Jr. looked like a guy who savored his first chance to run free on a football field in a while.
The second-year New Orleans Saints running back spent virtually all of his rookie season on the team’s practice squad, save for a Week 17 game when he played five offensive snaps. Saturday, in the Saints’ preseason opener against the Baltimore Ravens, he let all that pent up energy out.
Jones led all Saints players with 120 yards from scrimmage on 12 touches, and more than half those yardscame on a brilliant drive in which he carried the ball three times for 63 yards, capping it off with an 18-yard touchdown run.
“To be honest, I haven’t had a real game since college,” Jones said. “It felt great. It was like a coming out party. I felt great. … I mean, we lost, but it was a good day for me.”
Jones had one qualifier for that last point.
“Besides the fumble,” Jones said. “I have to fix that next week.”
In what was a de facto Saints debut for Jones, a bunch of very good things were weighted down a bit by one notable blemish. But the good thing is he now, finally, has something to build upon.
The Saints signed Jones as an undrafted free agent out of Notre Dame, and while he impressed in training camp last season, the NFL’s cancellation of 2020 preseason games meant he had zero chances to show exactly what he was capable of in a real, live football game.
The Saints cut Jones when they trimmed their roster down to their initial 53, but they quickly brought him back to develop him on their practice squad. Saturday offered the first real glimpse of what he could do with the ball in his hands.
And he showed that on his first touch.
Jones took a hand off from Jameis Winston, read the blocks in front of him and exploded into the second level of the Ravens defense, ripping off a 28-yard gain in the process. Two plays later, he made one cut, planted and zoomed through another big hole for a gain of 17.
He ended the drive by bouncing to his left and out-running the Ravens’ contain for an 18-yard score, completing the touchdown by diving for the pylon. Look closely, and you could see Jones quickly pulling the ball back into his hands after it crossed the goal line.
“I had that same exact play in college, and I didn’t score,” Jones said, reminiscing on the last time he was able to play. “So, I was like, ‘I have to score on it tonight. I have to score.’ But Coach [Sean Payton] said, ‘If you dive for the pylon, you better not fumble.’ So, I dove for it, and I pulled it back in.”
That drive showed Jones at his best, but the young running back also had a critical mistake later in the game that soured his breakout night.
Jones burst through the first line of the Ravens defense yet again, making another nice cut to move the ball inside the Baltimore 15-yard line. But as he angled toward the right sideline, he did so with the ball in his left hand, and Ravens safety Ar’Darius Washington separated him from the football.
Baltimore recovered the fumble, one of six turnovers the Saints committed in their preseason opener.
“The ball was loose, and he dove at the right spot,” Jones said. “So, that’s on me. That has nothing to do with contact; it’s just me getting focused.”
The good news for Jones is he doesn’t have to wait another year and a half to show he learned from the mistake.