If the Mile High air cooperates just a little, Oakland's Jacoby Ford is going to test the NFL’s newest rule on "Monday Night Football" in his team's first game of the 2011 season.
“I’m bringing that first one out,” said Ford, almost in sync with the question when asked his thoughts on the new kickoff rule that is expected to hinder kick returns. “I know it's Denver and I might not have my chance, but I’m bringing it out of the end zone every time I get [a reasonable] chance. That’s what I thought when I first saw the rule. I’m bringing it out.”
This spring, the NFL owners passed a rule that will put the ball at the 35-yard line instead of the 30 on kickoffs. Thus, more touchbacks are expected.
Ford’s aggression is admirable. He is one of the NFL’s premier return men after just one season in the league. He figures to be one of the players most at risk of suffering from the new rule, which is designed around safety.
Ford -- a fourth-round pick from Clemson in 2010 -- returned three kickoffs for touchdowns last season, an Oakland single-season record. All three returns came in the final two months of the season.
“It’s going to be tougher,” Ford said. “But I’ll be ready.”
The beauty of Ford's skill set is that he will not be neutralized totally if the new rule does, indeed, hamper the return game. Ford is not a one-trick pony.
Ford shocked the league with his ability to be a quality receiver last season. He entered the league with a reputation as a super-fast return man (he was the fastest player at the 2010 NFL combine), but was considered an unpolished receiver with poor hands.
“I heard it all,” Ford said this week from California, where is working out. “I was a reverse guy, a screen guy. I was short, I ran horrible routes, I wasn’t polished. I heard every one of them … I think, so far, I’ve proved I can be more than a returner.”
He started nine games and finished with 25 catches for 470 yards and two touchdowns. He took over a game against Kansas City in November, returning the opening kickoff of the second half for a touchdown before making two huge catches as Oakland came back to win the game in overtime. Ford had six catches for 148 yards that day.
Oakland has a stable of young receivers, but expect the 5-foot-10, 185-pound Ford to be in Oakland’s mix again in 2011.
“I’m going to do what I can to make sure I stay on the field,” Ford said. “That’s my job. I want to be a complete player.”
Given Ford’s speed, having him on the field as much as possible is crucial. Ford ran a 4.28-second 40-yard dash at the combine. Yet, he said his 40 time is irrelevant “because I’m still accelerating after 40 yards.” First-year Oakland head coach Hue Jackson, who was Oakland’s offensive coordinator last season, made it clear at the combine in February that he has big plans for Ford in Oakland’s offense moving forward.
“The guy is fast, and he scores touchdowns,” Jackson said. “So there’s no question, anytime I can get the ball in his hands, I want to do that. I mean, he’s a tremendous talent. Obviously we saw him last year at the combine run as fast as anybody in a long time, and obviously he came to the Raiders and proved that to be true. The guy is a tremendous special-teams player and ended up being our starting Z receiver and had a tremendous first year.”
Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. believes Ford is ready to be a solid contributor as a starting receiver. Williamson admitted that he wasn’t expecting Ford's receiving skills to be as polished as they were his rookie year. Williamson thinks Ford can be an effective No. 2 receiver.
“I am surprised, but I am also very much a fan of Ford. Pure electricity,” Williamson said. “One of the fastest players in the NFL -- and he plays like it in pads. He just runs away from people, but he isn't only a straight-line guy. He certainly has some wiggle and vision with the ball in his hands. But I don't see him as a No. 1 receiver. He’s a complementary piece -- but a good complementary piece.”
Ford is working toward being an Oakland mainstay at receiver, and he will join quarterback Jason Campbell in workouts next week on the East Coast.
Ford is hopeful to add one more duty to his Oakland role in 2011: punt returns. The Raiders have toyed with the idea, but they are leery of injury. Ford joked that he “has to convince Al Davis” to let him return punts. Ford said he plans to talk to Jackson about it and have Jackson talk to Davis. Ford said he is willing to compromise and return punts only occasionally.
“I just want to do whatever I can to make this team better,” Ford said. “I want to show that what I did as a rookie is just the beginning of my success as a Raider.”