No one benefitted more from the extra year of eligibility that college football players were granted due to COVID-19 than Velus Jones Jr.
The Bears' third-round draft pick, an explosive and impactful receiver and return specialist, enjoyed a breakout 2021 season at Tennessee—his sixth year playing at the major college level.
Jones more than doubled his career totals, catching 62 passes for 807 yards and seven touchdowns. He was also named the SEC Co-Special Teams Player of the Year after averaging 27.3 yards with one TD on 23 kickoff returns and 15.1 yards on 18 punt returns.
"He was one of the guys that took advantage of that COVID year and came back and really helped him to refine different parts of his game," said Bears area scout Sam Summerville. "The more I watched him, the more I saw him improve. Even going through [last] season, you see a different player end the season than what you saw earlier. I think he is one of those guys that continues to improve, and that extra time has helped him.
"I would say he got better with route running and things down the field. He has always been dynamic with the ball in his hands. I think he is always going to be an exciting guy from a RAC (run after catch) standpoint."
A top prospect at Saraland High School in Alabama, Jones initially enrolled at USC, redshirting as a freshman in 2016 and then playing three seasons for the Trojans from 2017-19. Jones earned a bachelor's degree in sociology from USC in December 2019 and then transferred to Tennessee as a grad student. He was permitted to play without sitting out a year because he had graduated from USC.
Jones played his final two seasons at Tennessee, earning a master's degree in agricultural leadership, education and communications last December.
On the field, returning for a sixth year helped him emerge as a promising NFL prospect who was selected by the Bears with the 71st pick in the draft.
"Having that extra year to develop on everything, from being bigger, stronger, faster, football IQ, increasing on that, especially breaking down defenses," Jones said, "God gave me another chance to do what I love, just improving myself as a player and also as a person."
Of the Bears' 11 picks in this year's draft, ESPN analyst Todd McShay chose Jones as their best selection.
"I love Jones' upside," McShay wrote. "He's a tad under 6-foot and is still refining his route running, but look at his speed and contact balance. He is a threat any time the ball is in his hands, with instincts and elusiveness in the open field and the breakaway speed to take the top off the defense. Jones' 4.31 in the 40 ranked fourth among all participants at the combine and second among receivers, and he's built like a running back.
"Chicago can get the ball in his hands on quick slants and let him pick up extra yards. They can target him on deep shots. They can get him involved on sweeps. And they can use him in the return game …"
The Bears are excited about Jones' speed, a trait he demonstrated during Senior Bowl week in practice and in the game itself when he led his team with four receptions for 53 yards, including a 32-yard catch.
"You could really see it, the way it translated to the field," Summerville said. "I mean, he just runs by guys. Every time he gets the ball in his hands, you can see him outrunning angles, and he's a real exciting guy to watch because of that."
Kyler Gordon, Jaquan Brisker, Velus Jones Jr., Braxton Jones, Dominique Robinson, Zachary Thomas, Trestan Ebner, Doug Kramer, Ja'Tyre Carter, Elijah Hicks and Trenton Gill. See photos of all the new Bears rookies selected in the 2022 NFL Draft.