Buffalo Bills Head Coach Sean McDermott saw the ice getting thin at WR receiver in last weekends NFL Draft and decided to pull the trigger on a trade with the L.A Rams. Moving up five spots in the second round to No. 37 in exchange for picks No. 44 and No. 91, the team selected WR Zay Jones from East Carolina University.
While the pick is in direct contrast with what McDermott said pre-draft about Buffalo’s number two receiver already being on the roster, it wasn’t a major surprise to experts and fans considering the Bills need for talent and stability at the position. The all-time FBS leader in career receptions (399) brings an exciting blend of size, smarts and hard work to Buffalo.
Here are five reasons Bills rookie WR Zay Jones is poised for success in the NFL:
1. Physical Tools: Good height (6’2) mixed with speed (4.45s 40-time) and athleticism (36.5 vertical leap) make for your prototypical possession receiver. What often gets overlooked is this young man’s wide catch-radius. Jones is great at high-pointing the football partly because of his size but also because he’s been blessed with a 77 3/4 inch wingspan. For perspective, Sammy Watkins has a 76-inch wingspan while Odell Beckham Jr.’s is slightly larger at 78 1/4 inches.
Zay also has the best hands in this year’s Draft Class to go with those physical attributes. Out of 216 targets last season, he only dropped six passes for an incredibly low 2.66% drop rate. Compare that to other top receivers taken before Jones like Clemson’s Mike Williams, who posted a 5.7% drop rate and Central Michigan’s Corey Davis, who finished 2016 with a 10.09% drop rate. As Erik Turner from Cover 1 said, every pass is framed and looked in. There may be some doubt among scouts over his ability to stretch the field, however on tape, Zay Jones has all the physical tools to be a longtime starter in the league.
2. Route Running: One of the more intriguing aspects of Zay’s game is that he’s an excellent short to intermediate route-runner. While some players his size may tend to rely on their athleticism and natural ability to make plays, Jones on the other hand works like a technician to get open. He utilizes attention to detail, smooth footwork and a variety of shoulder and head fakes to beat opposing defenders.
One of my favorite examples of this comes from this scouting video (Cover 1) of Zay where the receiver pumps his hands as he fakes a crossing pattern, only to plant his foot and turn back to the sidelines for the out route. While it may not seem like much, simply pumping his hands as he turns inside helps freeze the defender just enough for Jones to get open on the outside. He also excels at finding openings in zone coverage by identifying the zone defender responsible, attacking him and showing his numbers for the QB to target. You can have all the physical gifts in the world but if you can’t run efficient routes, it’s hard to stick in the NFL. That should be no problem for this second round pick.
3. Football IQ: Zay is also a student of the game with a high football IQ as witnessed last season when he learned how to play all the WR positions on the field. Moving him in and out of the slot and all around the offense helped increase his route running proficiency and also required him to know the assignments for 4-5 slightly different spots on the field at any given time. That type of cognitive ability and understanding of the playbook is expected at the Pro level but it’s good to see it already instilled in Jones.
Another heady attribute that #BillsMafia is sure to appreciate is Zay’s focus on down and distance, as he seemingly always knows the situation and exactly where the sticks are. If the offense needs 10 yards to move the chains, you better believe he will run his dig pattern deep enough so that when he drives back to the ball to make the catch, it will still be enough for a first down. He’s also known for turning up field almost immediately after the catch which is one of the most efficient ways to get yards following a reception. These little things matter in a game of inches.
4. Familiarity with Coaching: Back in January, Sean McDermott tabbed East Carolina’s WR Coach Phil McGeoghan to fill the same position with the Bills. Before teaming up with Zay and the Pirates for a record-breaking 2016 season, McGeoghan had already spent time in the AFC East, working with the Miami Dolphins receivers’ from 2012-2015.
And even though Jones only spent one year under McGeoghan’s tutelage, 158 receptions for 1,746 yards and eight touchdowns over 12 games speaks for itself. Considering skill players such as receivers spend a great deal of time with their positional coaches, the presence of a familiar/successful figure day in and day out should absolutely ease #11’s transition into the NFL.
5. Work Ethic/Drive: Coming out of high school, no college in the state of Texas offered Jones a scholarship which in his words, was “heartbreaking.” Especially, after going on some big time recruiting visits for his brother and growing up in the heartland where some equate football to life. Zay instead took his talents to his father’s Alma Mater, set some records and has been playing with a chip on his shoulder and looking to prove everyone wrong ever since.
At the 2016 Senior Bowl, coaches talked about the receiver’s phenomenal work ethic on and off field, which is no surprise given the stories about his dad waking the kids up early in the morning each day when they were younger to teach them about responsibility. What’s also remarkable is that Jones set a lofty goal to break the FBS record for receptions and ended up reaching it with hard work and determination. This kid plays to the whistle, watches the tape and has the drive to continue to get better at the next level.
Bonus: NFL Pedigree/DNA: While the Hey-Zay-Kid played for small school East Carolina out of the American Athletic Conference, he’s got Sunday football running through his veins. His father, Robert Jones, played LB for the Dallas Cowboys and won three Super Bowl Rings along with the NFC Rookie of the Year Award in 1992. Zay’s uncle on his mother’s side is Jeff Blake, former Pro Bowl QB for the Cincinnati Bengals that spent 13 seasons in the league. His older brother, Cayleb Jones was also a top WR recruit for the University of Texas and currently plays for the Minnesota Vikings.
Simply put, it’s in his DNA to play and be successful in the NFL. Unlike some rookies, don’t expect the bright lights of the professional game to be too big for Zay Jones.