TJ Jones struggled to catch passes a year ago at this time. After a lost rookie season in the NFL, he was still figuring out life after nerve issues affecting his hands.
Training took a while. So did returning to any sort of comfort level actually catching passes from quarterbacks. Even as he went through training camp, made the Detroit Lions' 53-man roster and became active for games, the progress back from nerve damage was a long one.
"To be honest, it’s been a very gradual progression," Jones said. "There was never really a time where I woke up and I was like, 'Wow, it feels great today.' It was, 'Oh, it feels a little bit better than last week.' Or 'it feels the same as last week' and then another week goes by and 'OK, it’s a little better than the last two weeks.'
"It was really a week-to-week progression, and my catching in practice was a little awkward still at the beginning of the season. By the end of the season, I was able to work on it and really, not perfect, but progress through my nerve damage and not let it hassle me."
Jones' season followed a similar path. He was inactive the first two weeks after making the roster. He became active in Week 3 and became Detroit’s primary punt returner for five weeks.
Then after four more inactive weeks, a Lance Moore ankle injury made Jones active again. He caught nine of his 10 receptions for 121 of his 132 yards during the final five games of the season. He moved up the depth chart and remained active ahead of Corey Fuller even when Moore returned.
The nerve damage subsided as well. Catching, finally, felt somewhat normal. So did Jones.
"For as normal as I think I can be, I would say it’s back," Jones said. "But if we did a nerve test and they said it was a little off still, I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Nowadays I just go out there. I’m healthy now and I can’t use it as an excuse.
"It’s a full year that has gone by. I made a couple catches in the preseason, so I figured once that happened, the nerve thing wasn’t going to be able to be an excuse anymore. Even if it was a couple of catches."
Jones was targeted 18 times. He caught 10 passes, dropped one and gained more trust with quarterback Matthew Stafford.
After a season when he finally started to get a feel for NFL life and an offseason he can use to focus on improvement instead of rehabilitation, Jones is putting himself in a position to potentially have a larger role in 2016.
The nerve issues are essentially figured out. The rigors of a season completed. Catching is no longer an issue.
“It does give me more confidence, just being able to really get back to the basics of football, just being able to run routes if I want to go run routes, catch a couple balls," Jones said. "Not really worry about, 'Oh, how’s today going to go? Is my hand going to hurt or let’s see how many drops I have? Let’s try not to have as many drops as the day before.'
"It’s really getting back to focusing on why I am here in the first place, which is to run routes and to catch the ball."
It's something he hasn’t had a real chance to do since he turned pro.