By Zack Marmer
The NCAA’s all-time leader in receptions was drafted to play for the Buffalo Bills in the 2nd round of the recent NFL draft. He was a hot name in the pre-draft process who’s hype built after a stellar NFL combine. What will his production look like in year one and beyond? Let’s dive into Zay Jones and try and to see all angles of him as a new member of Buffalo’s receiving corps.
Being drafted 37th overall has its benefits. Unlike players drafted in round 5 or later, 2nd rounders won’t be labeled as busts if they don’t start producing in year one. Most will get 2-3 years to show growth and potential to live up to their draft stock. Jones is essentially Robert Woods’ replacement, and Woods got four years before Buffalo had seen enough to cut him loose. Zay will assuredly get every opportunity to at least play second fiddle to Sammy Watkins.
Lack of competition
Speaking on Watkins, Zay’s lack of competition for targets should be seen as a huge pro for the rookie from ECU. This off-season, Buffalo signed free agent outcasts Andre Holmes (formerly of the Raiders) and Corey Brown (formerly of the Panthers) to team-friendly deals. Of Watkins, Holmes, and Brown, only Holmes is contracted through next season. Even if the Bills opt to re-sign Watkins, he has missed 11 games over the past two years, and the Bills declined his 5th-year team option. If Watkins is hurt or leaves, Zay could be looking at fringe WR1 targets. Jones is more talented than Brown and Holmes anyway and should see an opportunity to start right away. Fantasy success is where opportunity meets talent, and it looks like the Bills are going to give him a great opportunity to put his talent to work early on in his career.
The Buffalo Bills have led the league in rushing yards for the past two consecutive years. Tyrod Taylor has been a pleasant surprise since winning the starting job two years ago, but despite his above-average QB play, he has only averaged 408 attempts per year. (Taylor has missed three games over that span) Tyrod’s pass attempts per game spiked by about two per game from 2015 to 2016, showing that the coaching staff’s confidence in the former Hokie grew from year one to year two as a starter.
Even with the increased confidence of Taylor settling in as the signal caller in upstate New York, Buffalo still runs a lot. Taylor contributes to this. He led the league in rushing yards at the QB position last year. Being the number two option in Buffalo could be the equivalent of being the number three or four in an offense like Green Bay or New Orleans. Keep that in mind when projecting Jones’ impact.
Debunking the Narrative
Can he be more than a PPR receiver?
At Eastern Carolina, Zay Jones set the division I record for career receptions (399) ousting his former teammate, Justin Hardy. Unlike Hardy, Jones is actually very athletic. Hardy compiled receptions by being the de-facto only option on offense. Jones did the same thing at school, but is in another universe athletically speaking. The below table illustrates the differences between the two receivers:
[table id=65 /]
The narrative with Jones has been that he just runs the short routes and isn’t a threat deep or in the red-zone. His stats at ECU back this up. despite a ridiculous share of ECU’s receptions, (44% of all ECU receptions in 2016) Jones only averaged 11.1 yards per reception. This indicates that he was merely thrown at a ton on short underneath routes. At the Senior Bowl, Jones made a pair of spectacular end-zone catches against better competition than he played against in school. His athletic profile indicates that he can offer than that, and those plays at the Senior Bowl illustrate his potential. That’s why Buffalo spent such a high draft pick on the former Pirate.
Should you draft Zay Jones?
Zay has a clear path to the #2 receiver job from day one. Few receivers earn playing time immediately as rookies, but Jones will almost definitely be one of them. Athletically, Zay has the NFL body type of an outside receiver. In Buffalo’s conservative offense, I expect Jones to perform like a WR4/5 in year one. If Watkins misses time, Jones bumps up to the WR3 range. Jones has a ceiling as a high-end WR2 based on athletic profile, so there is certainly plenty of room for the young gun to mature and grow.
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