When an NFL head coach, unprompted, singles out for praise an undrafted receiver who missed his entire rookie season because of injury, you know that guy has had a heck of an offseason.
“Jamaal has caught my eye,” Los Angeles Chargers coach Anthony Lynn told chargers.com after a recent practice. “The last couple weeks he’s been very solid. Catching the ball well. Available. He’s doing pretty (well).”
Montana football fans understand the sentiment after watching Jamaal Jones filet opposing defenses in Missoula. But the likelihood that those words would be attached to the former Griz a year ago seemed unfathomable.
When Jones broke his right thumb just days into the Chargers' preseason training camp slate in 2016, his future with the team was at best murky. The team waived Jones because of the injury and he headed home to the Seattle-Tacoma area, his NFL prospects as damaged as his hand in its cast.
All fall and winter the 6-1 receiver kept his body in top shape and tried to ease the burden on his mind, which at times was far more difficult.
"I had to just keep faith and really make the most of my situation," said Jones, who reset Montana's career receiving mark with 3,021 yards between 2013-15. "That (it was all over) definitely came into my mind a few times, but it wasn't really something I harped on. I really felt like I was gonna get to the other side."
Jones and his agent heard from no other NFL teams in that stretch, but the Chargers reached out again just after Christmas. They signed the former Griz to a futures contract, a low-risk deal that opened the door to a spot in offseason camp this summer with a shot at working toward a full-time home on the active roster come fall.
"Obviously they saw something that they liked in me," said Jones, who has impressed during mini camp and organized team activities (OTAs) the past two months. "They could have picked up some other guy, some other vet with experience, but instead they chose to bring me back.
"That really made me feel grateful, to want to make the most out of everything when I got back there."
Jones and the Chargers are on summer break now until training camp begins in Los Angeles the final days of July. They had been working out at the team's old facilities in San Diego, the home of the Chargers since 1961 before the franchise relocates to LA for the 2017 season.
Even though Jones didn't play a down in an actual game during what would have been his rookie season, he entered his second camp with the Chargers with an enhanced perspective. No more star-struck looks around the locker room at the pros he used to watch on TV, now his peers.
"The first time I was like, 'Wow I just caught a pass from Philip Rivers.' This guy will probably be a Hall of Famer," Jones recalled thinking of the Chargers' 14-year veteran quarterback.
"After a while I started getting used to it. He coaches me up, tells me where I need to be. It's great working with him because he's a great leader on the field. He knows what he's talking about."
So do the receivers Jones has been rubbing shoulders with. The former Griz pointed to Keenan Allen as an example of a top route runner in the league and named LA receivers Dontrelle Inman and Travis Benjamin as other influences in his young career. Tyrell Williams too, especially considering the product of Division II Western Oregon knows what it's like to succeed in the league while jumping in from a small school off the radar.
There's been a lot more smiles this summer for Jones, but he knows his battle isn't over. He's caught the eye of his coaches, but he needs to stay in their minds to be one of the receivers who makes the transition from training camp to the active roster.
The Chargers will whittle their 90-man offseason roster all the way down to 53 before their season opener in September.
"I've just been trying to show on offense my ability to get open," Jones began, "really just being somebody who can consistently get open and works hard to do things right at all times."