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Marvin Jones is Bengals' X-Factor

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Marvin Jones missed all of 2014 with ankle and foot injuries. Now, he's back, and his presence in 2015 is probably more important than you'd think.

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Marvin Lewis Jones hasn't caught a pass in an NFL game in more than 500 days. Because of this, people tend to forget just how good Marvin Jones is. More importantly, Bengals fans don't quite realize how important Marvin Jones is to the success of Andy Dalton, and therefore, the success of the Bengals.

As a second year player, he finished with 51 catches, 712 yards, and 10 TDs. The remarkable thing about his season is that Jones only started 3 regular season games that year. After the 2013 preseason, the Bengals selected Mohamed Sanu to start as the second receiver opposite A.J. Green. So, Jones put up those numbers as the team's third receiver for most of the year.

Remember Jones' four-touchdown game against the Jets in Week 8? Of course you do. Crazy performance. But this is even crazier - Jones ran only 13 routes that game. As the 2013 season went on, Jones slowly earned more playing time because the team just couldn't keep his playmaking ability off the field. The Bengals also began to understand the deficiencies in Sanu's game. Namely, he doesn't separate well when lined up on the outside, and he has issues with drops. In December, Jones finally began to take the field more often than Sanu. Then, in the playoff game against San Diego, Jones played 63 snaps to Sanu's 30. In that game, Jones posted an impressive 8-reception, 130-yard stat line. But, it was a bit meaningless when the Bengals lost by 17 points.

That year, Jones developed a chemistry with Dalton that hasn't been matched in four years. Dalton's quarterback rating when targeting Jones was 119.2, which ranked 5th in the league among wide receivers. In fact, Dalton's quarterback rating has never topped 100 when throwing to any other receiver who caught more than 16 balls in one season.

With Jones' long frame and excellent route running ability, he is also a dangerous threat in the red zone. Nine of his 10 touchdown's in 2013 came in the redzone.

Additionally, Andy Dalton and the Bengals really missed Jones as a deep threat in 2014. Jones ranked fifth among all wide receivers in catch percentage (57.1%) on deep balls in 2013. Jones was targeted 14 times on passes over 20 yards and he caught all eight catchable passes, totaling 172 yards and 4 touchdowns.

Jones is also an elusive playmaker when he catches the ball in space. According to Pro Football Focus, his 13 missed tackles that year ranked 10th among all wide receivers in 2013. He was the only receiver in the top 20 of that list who played less than 600 snaps.

Having this kind of playmaker on the field will be monumental for the Bengals this season if Jones can stay healthy. Unfortunately, that's a big 'if'. In his rookie season, Jones suffered an MCL tear in his knee and missed essentially 6 games. He did play a full season in 2013. But, in February of last year, Jones suffered a right ankle injury that kept him out of spring workouts and the first two weeks of training camp. He returned for three preseason practices, but then broke his left foot. He actually practiced briefly before the Week 5 matchup against the New England Patriots, but he reinjured his right ankle again. Jones was then placed on Injured Reserve after a visit to a specialist revealed that his right ankle injury was worse than previously thought.

On Tuesday, Jones returned to OTAs healthy and hit the ground running. He said yesterday that "it's like nothing ever happened". His offensive coordinator Hue Jackson was very happy to see him back too:

"He's Marvin Jones. He's what he was when he left. He can run, he can catch, he's explosive, sudden, quick, fast. He's all those things. I'm glad he's healthy."

At the end of the day, if Jones can stay healthy, the Bengals have finally found their starting receiver opposite A.J. Green. This role is especially important for Andy Dalton because he does tend to make up his mind about his target before the play begins. When defenses key in on this flaw, they shift their coverage toward Green and force Dalton to beat them elsewhere. In 2013, Dalton was actually able to use this to his advantage because he would then switch his primary read to Marvin Jones. Dalton had his best season that year, in part because Jones was able to create so much separation.

Looking forward, having Jones, Green, and Tyler Eifert on the field at the same time could lead to a career year for Andy Dalton. With a potent two-headed running attack of Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard behind a big offensive line that built up some depth in this year's draft, the Bengals offense may be able to match the mind-boggling 54 touchdowns they put up in 2013.