On Monday, the Ravens signed Cyrus Jones to their 53-man roster, a not-unexpected move for a team needing cornerback depth and another pair of hands at returner. It was Jones’ second trip to Baltimore in five weeks, which was also rather business as usual; the former Gilman star had spent about two weeks on the team’s practice squad last month, familiarizing himself with coaches and schemes.
What most concerned outside linebacker Terrell Suggs was the team that Jones had spent all of his other time with this season.
“They made a little joke about me being a spy from the Patriots, just because of the time frame of me getting here and going back and coming back,” Jones said Wednesday, chuckling.
After five weeks, three fumbles and two demotions to the practice squad, the Ravens (3-2) are wary of anything else going wrong on punt returns — never mind the fact that New England isn’t even on the team’s schedule this year.
On Wednesday, coach John Harbaugh let slip that wide receiver John Brown could get a look as a returner Sunday against the Tennessee Titans (3-2). It was not exactly a state secret. He immediately regretted giving it away anyway.
“I probably shouldn't have even said anything, because now it's going to be a big story,” he said.
The identity of the Ravens’ returner has been, if not a big story, then at least a long one. In the preseason, undrafted rookie receiver Janarion Grant and Tim White, another former undrafted rookie receiver, battled for the return jobs vacated by Michael Campanaro (River Hill), Bobby Rainey and current Ravens receiver Chris Moore.
Grant ultimately won out, pushing White to the team’s practice squad. That arrangement lasted all of three weeks. After Grant muffed two punts over the first two games, it was White who was elevated to the 53-man roster and Grant who landed on the practice squad.
On Sunday, White fumbled during a punt return in a loss to the Cleveland Browns. Early Monday afternoon, Harbaugh said he “loved [White’s] decision-making and hated the ball security.” A few hours later, the Ravens’ decision-making had led them to release White and claim Jones, whom the Patriots had cut two days earlier. Before the Ravens had made it even a third of the way through the season, they were on to their third returner.
Just who will be back for kickoff and punt returns is unknown. Harbaugh said Jones, who returned five punts for 45 yards before the Patriots cut him to make space for Julian Edelman, is in the mix. So is Brown. White and Grant, too. And during the open portion of practice Wednesday, wide receivers Willie Snead IV and Chris Moore got repetitions as kickoff returners.
“So I guess we'll just kind of find out on Sunday and let them try to figure who it's going to be,” Harbaugh said.
Jones is the likely favorite at punt returner, but forecasting the Baltimore native’s career has been as speculative as predicting snowfall in Maryland. A second-round pick in 2016, Jones appeared in just 10 games for New England over his first two seasons, the second of which he missed with a torn ACL and partially torn meniscus.
After not making the Patriots’ season-opening 53-man roster, he ended up in Baltimore on Sept. 3. On Sept. 19, he was headed back to New England, never having played a snap for the Ravens. When Edelman, a receiver and returner, returned from a four-game suspension, someone on the Patriots roster had to go.
“It's crazy,” said Jones, the All-Metro Football Offensive Player of the Year in 2011. “I mean, I'm still trying to wrap my head around it. I was trying to wrap my head around it the first time, but being back here for the second time in about three weeks, it's crazy. But I'm back, ready to be home. I feel like this is where I should've been from Day 1.”
Brown could be Jones’ dark-horse competition for a return job. They entered the NFL with different pedigrees — Jones a two-time national champion at Alabama, Brown the Divsion II star at Pittsburg State — but similar special teams gifts.
Jones had four punt return touchdowns as a Crimson Tide senior, one short of the Football Bowl Subdivision record. Brown had five total return touchdowns at Pittsburg State, including an 84-yard punt return for a score on his first-ever touch at the school.
He last fielded a punt in 2016, for the Arizona Cardinals, but he volunteered for the Ravens’ vacancy.
“I mean, if teams are going to plan on doubling me [at receiver] and trying to take me out of the game, I’m going to find a way to put the ball in my hand,” he said. “You’ve got to kick it to me.”
Harbaugh had different concerns. He didn’t mind sharing those.
“He'll have to catch it first, just like everybody else, and hold on to it.”
Note: Sunday will feature a long-awaited reunion between Jones and Titans wide receiver Darius Jennings, who played together at Gilman, with Jennings graduating in 2011 and Jones the year after.
The Greyhounds won the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference championship in 2009 and 2011, but Jennings’ Virginia teams and Jones’ Alabama teams never met in college. This will be their first-ever meeting in the NFL.
“A lot of wins, but a lot of fun,” Jones said of their time together at Gilman. “Other than a football player, Darius was a great friend of mine from Day 1. So we definitely had a lot of great memories back there at Gilman at school and on the field, especially.”