First, Taiwan Jones was going to make a big impact for the Raiders as a change-of-pace speed running back.
Then, the team needed him to make the transition to cornerback, with the hope his quickness could help him turn into a defensive playmaker.
Six games into the 2013 season, Jones is indeed making an impact every game for the Raiders (2-4), but not on the offensive or defensive sides of the ball. Now, Jones has become one of the NFL’s top special-teams tacklers, using his speed and aggressiveness to get down the field and make plays as a gunner (a specialist who releases from the outside of the line of scrimmage on punts or targets the returner on kickoffs).
Jones is one of the reasons the Raiders rank first in the NFL in fewest yards allowed on kickoffs (19.0 average), while also giving up just 8.4 yards per punt return.
Jones ranks among the top 20 in the NFL this season with five tackles on special teams, and now every opponent has to account for him.
“I think Taiwan Jones, if he’s not the best special-teams player in the league, he’s one of the best in the league,” Raiders head coach Dennis Allen told Paul Gutierrez of ESPN.com this week. “He’s a difference-maker in all of our coverage units. The type of speed he’s got, his willingness to go down and create contact and make tackles … those are the things that you have to have and I think he’s done an outstanding job.”
Jones told Gutierrez that he hopes to make the Pro Bowl as a special teams player.
“I’m shooting to be the best at what I’m doing right now,” he said.
One of the reasons the Raiders believed Jones could make the switch to cornerback was the tackling ability they saw when he played special teams his first two seasons as a backup running back. Jones, who started his college career as a defensive back, said he was willing to make the move to cornerback
“I’m still just happy to be on the roster,” Jones said earlier this year. “Whatever I can do to help the team, and if I can help the team on defense, then I’m willing to do it.”
And, over the next few seasons, it’s possible Jones could improve enough to earn more playing time at corner. But for now, he’s relishing the chance to make big plays on special teams and come off the field knowing that he’s put the other team in a field-position hole.
“I’m having fun out there,” Jones told Gutierrez. “Being a gunner, it’s one of those positions where it’s not too much scheming. It’s just man on man, mano y mano out there, and whoever has the most effort out there is going to win. That’s one thing I enjoy.”