How WR Charlie Jones fits with the Bengals in 2023 and beyond

Charlie Jones' NFL draft profile (0:55)

Check out highlights from Purdue wide receiver Charlie Jones. (0:55)

CINCINNATI — Charlie Jones spent six years in college searching for the chance to shine.

The wide receiver went from being a scholarship player at Buffalo to a walk-on at Iowa, looking to make his mark at a major program. The search for more eventually led him from Iowa to Purdue, where he believed he could have a bigger impact as a pass-catcher.

Twelve touchdowns, 1,361 receiving yards and one historic season later, Jones made the mark he was looking for. Now he’s looking to make an impact as a member of the Cincinnati Bengals.

The team’s fourth-round pick in April’s draft has been slotted as someone who can be immediately productive as a return specialist. Perhaps more importantly, he could become a viable option to be a starting receiver in future years.

The 6-foot, 188-pound Jones says he is ready to contribute wherever he’s needed. And just as he was in college, he’ll be ready when the moment arrives.

“Being able to get an opportunity no matter where it is, is awesome,” Jones, 24, said after the team’s rookie minicamp. “It’s something I’ve been looking forward to my whole life.”

Jones became the first wide receiver the Bengals drafted since 2021, when Cincinnati took Ja'Marr Chase with the fifth overall pick.

In his only season at Purdue, Jones set the school record for receiving yards in a season. But when he arrived in West Lafayette, Indiana, Jones might have been one of the few who knew he was capable of producing one of the best seasons in college football in 2022.

Coming out of high school in Deerfield, Illinois, Jones was a two-star recruit who played in a run-heavy offense and was known more for his ability as a returner. After two years at Buffalo, he transferred to Iowa, taking the risk of playing without a scholarship in exchange for being in the Big Ten.

In 2021, he was voted the best return specialist in the conference. Still, he wanted a chance to show he could be a receiver. That led him to Purdue, where he was reunited with starting quarterback Aidan O'Connell who was a childhood friend.

“I always knew that regardless of the situation, I had to come out and work every day,” Jones said. “It is what it was in the past. I knew if I just kept working, working, working, once I got that opportunity at Purdue, things would come full circle.”

Purdue’s coaching staff knew Jones was an excellent returner and had the connection with O’Connell. But once Jones started working with the Boilermakers, it was clear that Jones was capable of more than he had showed to that point.

He faced Penn State in his first game at Purdue. The Nittany Lions featured two NFL-caliber cornerbacks — Joey Porter Jr., who the Pittsburgh Steelers just drafted 32nd overall in this year’s draft, and Kalen King, a first-round projection for the 2024 draft. Jones finished with 12 catches for 153 yards and a touchdown.

At that point as coaches, you go, ‘No, this guy is real, we have to get him the ball,’ said Garrick McGee, Purdue’s former wide receivers coach who is now at Louisville.

Bengals rookie cornerback DJ Turner, the team’s second-round pick out of Michigan, was tasked with covering Jones in the Big Ten championship game, which the Wolverines won despite a 13-catch, 162-yard performance from Jones.

“He would line up outside, slot, left, right,” Turner said. “It didn’t matter. Wherever he is, you better know where he is. Because if you don’t, it can get bad. Quick.”

Jones ended the year as a semifinalist for the Biletnikoff Award, which is given to the nation’s best receiver, and broke a school receiving record that had stood for 20 years. The numbers and accolades occurred despite the fact Jones dealt with a turf toe injury and hip issue that nagged him throughout the season.

McGee said that not only would Jones practice through those injuries, he was always someone the staff had to monitor so he wouldn’t sneak on the field for extra reps against the third-string defense.

All the work Jones had done at multiple college stops instilled confidence that he could perform when given the chance. And at Purdue, Jones consistently delivered.

“This is a pressure player,” McGee told ESPN. “He's at his best when the game was on the line. When we were behind and we had to have a play, he would always come up with it.”

Jones won’t have similar expectations in his rookie season with the Bengals. He joins a receiving corps with three established playmakers -- Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd. However, with Boyd entering the final year of his current contract and Higgins and Chase in the mix for contract extensions, Jones will have the chance to prove that he can potentially become a starter.

Cincinnati offensive coordinator Brian Callahan called the decision to draft Jones a “no-brainer.” Bengals wide receivers coach Troy Walters, who worked with Jones at his college pro day, said Jones has enough speed to play on the outside and has the skills to be effective in the slot.

While his ability to make contested catches and proficiency as a route runner is crucial, perhaps his biggest attribute is that he can become someone quarterback Joe Burrow can trust.

“With Joe, he wants you to be in the right spot at the right time, and that’s what Charlie does,” Walters said. “He’s going to be in the right spot. He’s someone that Joe can count on.”

As a rookie, Jones will be in contention to be the team’s starting returner. Offensively, he’ll join Trenton Irwin, Trent Taylor and sixth-round pick Andrei Iosivas as depth options behind Cincinnati’s starting trio.

That suits Jones just fine. Throughout his life, he has pounced on each role given to him and waited for his opportunity.

“I just really believed,” said Jones about the college journey that led him to the NFL and Cincinnati. “I didn’t really care what my circumstance was because in the end, I knew what I was going to do.”