JACKSONVILLE – He's back, and Zay Jones is glad about that.
The Jaguars are, too, and the Jaguars' most recent victory further suggests what many around the team will tell you – that the veteran wide receiver matters a lot to the offense.
Maybe even more than statistics might suggest.
"I was excited and grateful to be back out there with my team," Jones said Monday as the AFC South-leading Jaguars (7-3) began preparing to play the Houston Texans (6-4) in a division game at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas, Sunday.
Jones spoke a day after a 34-14 victory over the Tennessee Titans at EverBank Stadium, Jones' first game since reinjuring his knee in a Week 5 victory over the Buffalo Bills and his fourth game overall playing this season.
The Jaguars are 3-1 this season when Jones has played, and his two most recent games – Week 5 against Buffalo and Sunday against Tennessee – mark the team's two highest yardage totals of the season.
"Zay has been a huge part of this team over a year and a half, just his presence out there," tight end Evan Engram said. "We all know his capabilities to make plays, his leadership qualities, his energy and his reliability, too."
Teammates this season have discussed Jones' importance in red-zone and third-down situations, citing his chemistry with Trevor Lawrence and the trust the third-year quarterback has in the veteran receiver. Teammates and coaches also say Jones' presence at times helps draw defenses from Engram and the Jaguars' other two top receivers, Christian Kirk and Calvin Ridley.
"Kind of the Big Four, with [running back] Travis [Etienne Jr.] … that's a big part of our team," Engram said. "To have everybody out there healthy is big for us. You have to account for everybody. That's the talent in that group. It makes it hard for the defense. That's a big part of our identity."
Ridley's three 100-yard games this season – Week 1 at Indianapolis, Week 5 at Buffalo and Sunday – have come with Jones in the lineup.
"One man doesn't make a team, but I know the value that I help bring to the team and guys have mentioned to me – as far as Calvin and Christian – the respect they have for me," Jones said. "That means a lot to me that I can help open the offense up, but it's an entire team effort with the special teams and defense as well – obviously in the offense.
"It takes all of us and we're going to need that this week because we're playing a very good team."
Jones, after catching 82 passes for 823 yards and five touchdowns in his first season with the Jaguars in 2022, caught eight passes for 76 yards and two touchdowns in his three previous games this season. He played 45 snaps Sunday and caught four passes for 20 yards, also drawing a 27-yard interference penalty on a deep pass from Lawrence.
"It was good to see him get back in the mix," Jaguars Head Coach Doug Pederson said. "It just helps the overall offense. We don't have to switch and change as many personnel groupings. He was tough in the run game.
"He's just knocking off that rust, just getting back out there in game speed. He'll continue to get stronger, better and more confident each week. From an offensive perspective, it was really good to see him.
- The Jaguars on Sunday rushed for 128 yards as a team, their second-highest total of the season, with backup running back D'Ernest Johnson rushing for 20 yards on seven carries. Johnson also turned in a key play when he turned a short pass from Lawrence on fourth-and-4 from the Titans 40 into a 34-yard catch-and-run gain that set up Lawrence's nine-yard touchdown run two plays later. The eight touches for 54 yards marked season-highs for Johnson, who spent much of the first nine games as the third running back behind starter Travis Etienne Jr. and rookie Tank Bigsby. "Just the same guy we thought coming out of training camp," Pederson said when asked what he saw in Johnson Sunday. "That's why we held onto him. He's a really good running back. He's given T.J. [Etienne] some valuable rest throughout the course of the game. He has done a really good job. We've been encouraged by his progress. The goal would be maybe a touch or two more to keep the pressure off Travis." Johnson, who played collegiately at South Florida, originally tried to make the NFL at a minicamp tryout camp with the New Orleans Saints in 2018. He played for the Orlando Apollos of the Alliance of American Football before rushing for 805 yards and three touchdowns with the Cleveland Browns from 2019-2022. "I've been patient," Johnson said of the first nine games of the season. "It's always been like this throughout my whole career. I just take each opportunity and try to make the most of each one of them."