Ford is a 26-year old receiver and kick returner who is listed at 5-9 and 190 pounds. The former fourth round pick out of Clemson has returned four kickoffs for touchdowns in his NFL career and has also caught 57 passes for 848 yards and three touchdowns. He's also rushed for two scores. However, all nine of his career touchdowns came in his first one and a half seasons, as he missed the second half of 2011 and all of 2012 with injuries and wasn't very productive in his return to action last year. Ford is best known for his speed. He was a highly decorated track athlete in college and ran a 4.28 forty yard dash at the 2010 combine.
After the jump, observations from reviewing footage from Ford's career so far to evaluate his strengths and weaknesses.
Who is Jacoby Ford?
The diminutive Ford went to college at Clemson where he was a productive wide receiver and kick returner between 2006 and 2009. He also competed as a track athlete, winning several titles including the 2009 NCAA championship in the 60-yard dash. It was no surprise when he ran well at the 2010 scouting combine, putting up a 4.28 in the 40-yard dash. This led to the Raiders drafting him in the fourth round.
As a rookie, Ford looked destined for stardom. He returned three kickoffs for touchdowns and had a career year in terms of both receiving and rushing numbers. All that offensive production was squeezed into the last 10 games, as Ford was barely used on offense in the first six weeks. However, within a month, he'd racked up two 100-yard receiving games. Against the Chiefs in week nine, he returned a kickoff for a touchdown and caught six passes for 148 yards, including a 47-yard catch in overtime to set up the winning field goal. Ford was named Pepsi rookie of the week for his efforts.
In Ford's second season, he looked set to eclipse these numbers, but missed half the season with a foot injury, returning in week 16. He did return another kickoff for a score in week six. A recurrence of that foot injury caused him to require surgery and miss the entire 2012 season and in 2013 his production was disappointing. Ford did not have a kickoff return of longer than 30 yards, struggled with fumbles when moved onto punt return duty and saw his playing time and targets at receiver disappear, ending the season with less than 100 yards receiving.
Three seasons (missed 2012 entirely)
38 games, 13 starts
57 catches, 848 yards and three touchdowns
53% catch rate
19 carries for 201 yards and two touchdowns
Eight tackles (one on special teams)
Nine punt returns for 77 yards, eight fair catches
75 kickoff returns for a 25.0 yard average, four touchdowns
Ten fumbles, with three lost (seven on special teams)
It's pretty obvious what Ford was capable of - here's a good highlight reel displaying just how dynamic he was in 2010 and 2011. However, two questions remain. One being what his weaknesses are, but the more overriding question being whether he can still make those kinds of plays. I'll therefore mostly be focusing on Ford's 2013 performance to get an insight into this.
Ford's foot injury had apparently fully healed entering preseason, but unfortunately he then had a minor injury to further set him back. Once the season got underway, he returned kickoffs for the first six games but then was moved out of that role and onto punts, which he was doing for the first time in his career and struggled with. Ford was only ever a fourth or fifth option at receiver and his reps dried up altogether towards the end of the year as the Raiders worked Andre Holmes into the lineup instead. Ford was actually healthy all year, but was a healthy scratch over the last three games. There was one minor spark in preseason, as he returned a kickoff 62 yards.
Based on all the footage watched, here was what Ford brings to the table, divided into categories:
Measurables - Ford is obviously very small, which doesn't help him in terms of staying healthy. He maintained in an interview yesterday that he's still as fast as he ever was. Ford once ran a 100-meter dash in 10.01 and returned a kickoff 100 yards in 11 seconds. Aside from his 4.28 forty time, the rest of his combine numbers were actually pretty unspectacular.
Usage - In 2013, Ford was lined up on the outside approximately two-thirds of the time and in the slot the rest of the time. He did not line up in the backfield although he has done that in the past. Ford has taken one wildcat snap in his career.
Deep threat - In 2013, Ford was targeted six times beyond 20 yards downfield (and twice more in preseason). The only success was a 22-yard catch on a back shoulder thrown down the seam. However, he has shown the ability to get downfield in the past, as you'll have seen if you watched the above highlight reel. In 2010 and 2011, he caught seven such passes for 251 yards on 17 attempts.
Blocking - With his relative lack of size, Ford doesn't contribute much as a blocker, but does appear to give a good effort. He did have one good block on a screen pass where he did a good job of preventing his man from getting to the outside in the slot. On another play he made a good initial block, but his man fought it off to get in on the tackle.
Routes - Most of the passes Ford caught last season were dump-offs in the flat, but he did have a couple of sticks plays. On one play, he faked on an end around and then reversed back on a wheel route in the other direction, but the disguise didn't really work. Perhaps the best route he displayed all year was a well executed slant for a first down in preseason where he planted hard to get a step on his man. On one outside route, he allowed Tim Jennings to muscle him towards the sideline so there wasn't much room for the quarterback to fit his throw.
Hands - Ford didn't have any bad drops last season. In fact, he only has two drops since 2010 per PFF. Ford did have one drop in the regular season and two more in preseason, but none of these were too bad. One was on a fourth down where he got open on a rub route but the pass was far too low. Another was disrupted by Jonathan Joseph on a throw that should have been further to the outside - and may even have been tipped by Joseph. The other saw him get a step on the outside, but the ball was high and behind him so he couldn't make a tough jumping catch on the sideline.
In terms of the catches he did make, I have to give him credit for hanging onto two downfield first down grabs where he was nailed as the ball arrived, one of which saw him sandwiched between three defenders. He didn't really make any spectacular catches last season, but you can get a sense of what he can do in the 2010/11 highlight reel above.
For Ford, the bigger issue is that he sometimes fails to protect the ball downfield. Most of his fumbles came at the end of a run where he had initially beaten a tackle or two. This happened twice on punts in 2013, which was perhaps an adjustment he needed to make in a role which was new to him at the pro level.
Yards after the catch - Ford's numbers here are strong, but that's largely because he catches a lot of screen passes. Even last year, his average YAC per catch would have placed him in the top 20, although he fell just short of the snap count requirement. In 2011, he was 4th among players with at least 200 snaps, although he only broke a total of three tackles.
Instincts - I didn't see any blown assignments by Ford, who also seems to have excellent instincts as a runner. At times, he did run back kicks where there was little chance of him getting back to the 20, but you can perhaps attribute that to poor blocking as much as poor reads. Also, some of these were in preseason, where he was likely to run the ball out no matter what.
Special Teams - Ford's return abilities have been well documented, but he was not very impressive last year apart from on that one return in preseason. Other than on returns, he is sometimes employed as a punt gunner, albeit only a handful of times last year. However, he has the pure speed to be effective in such a role.
Ford has said he'll be in the competition for the kickoff and punt return role. On the face of it, Ford's cameo as a punt returner didn't go too well last year, as he had three fumbles and only nine returns. Only one of the fumbles was a muffed catch and that bounced right back to him. However, there was one punt that he misjudged terribly and missed his catch altogether. The opposition recovered the ball, but replays ultimately showed that Ford had somehow managed not to touch it as he missed the catch and then the ball bounced over him as he fell over. He did look more comfortable catching the ball from that point on and did show some promise in terms of his ability to make the first guy miss and make decent yardage, he just needed to protect the ball better at the end of these returns.
Attitude - All indications are that Ford has a good attitude. He was arrested on a DUI charge last year, but the district attorney declined to charge him.
Injuries - Ford's injury history can be summed up in one word which should send shivers down the spine of any die-hard Jets fans: Lisfranc. While Ford's Lisfranc injury was apparently not as severe as the one which felled Santonio Holmes in 2012, it did re-occur in the following season, requiring surgery. Now one year removed from that surgery, the hope would be that he might be closer to his old self than he was last season. As noted, he was healthy throughout 2013, apart from a sprained knee that hampered him in preseason.
When he first entered the league Ford was such an exciting and dynamic player. I wish I could tell you that's the guy the Jets are getting here, but obviously that's not possible. Still, if healthy, he brings a playmaking ability that the team hasn't had for some time.
Searching Dolphins blogs after the Patterson signing, I saw lots of comments that their fans had hoped he'd return and were disappointed to lose him to a division rival. However, the sentiment among the Oakland fanbase mostly seems to be that they're glad to see the back of Ford after his disappointing last few seasons.
Recovering from a Lisfranc injury isn't a straightforward thing, as Santonio Holmes showed last season, so the possibility exists that Ford was slowed down by that last year and might be closer to his old self in 2014.
From the 2013 footage, Ford still has that initial burst and some good elusiveness, but the Raiders just weren't able to get him into the open field too often for him to hit top gear. Maybe that says more about them than Ford himself. He definitely needs to protect the ball better though.
I wouldn't say Ford's spot on next year's team is guaranteed. However, he has a good chance to win the kick returner role and also contribute as a fourth or fifth option on offense. I wouldn't be surprised if they put in some special packages for him as they did with the likes of Saalim Hakim, Greg Salas and Josh Cribbs last year.
Ultimately, this is yet another low-risk move with potential upside. As we've seen, sometimes those work out and sometimes they don't, but the good news is that if it doesn't pay off, they haven't hurt themselves in the long run.