There are few players with more pressure to perform in 2018 than second-year wide receiver Zay Jones. No, it’s not a put up or shut up season for Jones just yet, but it’s potentially the most important season of his young career and where it’s headed following a very disappointing rookie campaign.
Disappointing is probably putting it lightly; Jones’s 36.5% catch percentage ranked nearly dead last (second-last among qualified players) in the league, and the connection between him and Tyrod Taylor never really materialized over the course of the season.
Early on in the season when the Bills lost to the Carolina Panthers on the road, I thought a defining moment occurred for Jones. He was inches away from being the hero, making an incredible catch in the end zone on fourth-and-long as the clock ran out. What a moment that would have been for the Bills to pull out a win on the road in week two to to improve to 2-0.
Instead, whether it was on Zay or on Tyrod, the ball fell harmlessly to the turf and the Bills fell to 1-1. Confidence-wise, I thought that was a huge blow for the rookie and set him back mentally for the rest of the season.
Remember, this is the same receiver who was one catch shy of 400 in his college career at East Carolina — the same guy who pulled in 158 catches his senior season alone. He wasn’t a guy that struggled with confidence or drops at the college level, so his troubles in the NFL were difficult to understand.
But now that we got the on-field negatives out of the way, we can at least acknowledge the interesting offseason incident where he was arrested for doing weird stuff naked in a hotel. It’s over; the Bills have backed him and all charges were dropped. Still weird.
But now that I at least mentioned it, let’s talk about a few reasons why I believe Zay Jones is set to have a significantly better 2018 and take a noticeable step forward in year two.
Rookie WR slump
In today’s NFL, there may not be a harder transition process (other than quarterback) from college to the pros than for wide receivers. There are always outliers, like L.A.’s Cooper Kupp and Pittsburgh’s JuJu Smith-Schuster, but for the most part, nearly all rookie wide receivers fail to make a significant contribution in their rookie campaigns.
To me, this is mostly because the talent lining up across from them is a significant step up from college, especially if you’re a player coming from a small school. Add in significantly more intuitive route tree concepts, and it can take more than a full season for guys to figure it all out. Just ask Mike Williams, John Ross, Corey Davis or Curtis Samuel from the same draft class that Zay came from. Ask Corey Coleman, Laquon Treadwell or Josh Doctson from 2016. Or wait, maybe ask Kevin White, DeVante Parker, Breshad Perriman or Phillip Dorsett.
The point is wide receiver has become a position that’s almost more difficult to evaluate at the college level than quarterback. What translates to the next level has become increasingly more difficult to narrow down, and it has lead to a bunch of first-round busts.
But to me, Jones has the body of work that indicates to me that what we saw in 2017 was simply developmental – emphasize the mental. I can’t stress enough how important the role of confidence can be in the mind of a receiver. Although I’ve never played the position, they were always bigger divas than quarterbacks, and that really says it all.
With a new offense and some quarterbacks that may allow Jones to use his size and strength to win some one-on-one battles on top of the increased attention a healthy Kelvin Benjamin will require, I expect to see a very different Jones in 2018.
Better passers throwing him the ball
This section will get more attention than it needs to, but I believe Jones will be playing with better quarterbacks in 2018 than he did last season. This isn’t meant to be a shot at Tyrod Taylor, but I think a lot of Taylor’s short-to-intermediate struggles took their toll on Jones last season. Whether throws were behind or too high, or throws that Jones had to contort his body for just to make a catch, he wasn’t put into a lot of advantageous positions to make plays as a rookie.
I’m not suggesting that Allen or McCarron are light years more accurate than Taylor (in fact, a war may break out if I say Allen is more accurate), but I do believe that McCarron, in particular, will give his receivers more opportunities to catch and run. That will ultimately bode well for Jones in his second season.
Easier system/terminology to understand
Especially as a receiver, the transition from college, where you could look to the sidelines to find a giant card with encrypted instructions for each player, to the pros, where receivers often have to get the play after getting out to their position, can entail a major learning curve for young players.
In the Erhardt-Perkins system, as Erik has alluded to a number of times, the terminology is consolidated and composed of concepts rather than individual responsibilities. For me, that’ll be the biggest difference or factor in 2018 for Jones to breakout. He should have the ability to focus on his landmarks and footwork instead of where he needs to be.
Add in the addition of RPO’s, which I think you can expect a lot of, especially if Josh Allen plays this season. Those RPO’s will give Jones an opportunity to get yards after catch but, more importantly, opportunities to catch the ball when his primary defender is conflicted.
Opportunities/Lack of elite pass defenders on the schedule
The last and maybe most important reason why I think Zay will have a bounce back in his second year is purely opportunity-driven. He’s undoubtedly lining up as the team’s number-two wide receiver in 2018, and that means he’ll have plenty of opportunities to make plays.
The other part of this is the lack of elite pass defenders the Bills will face in 2018. Outside of Casey Hayward, Jalen Ramsey, and Xavier Rhodes, the Bills caught a break in having to play elite defenders at the cornerback position. I think that will help Jones immensely with confidence next season.
There were a lot of contributing factors to the struggles Zay Jones had in 2017, and I know I’m not the only one rooting for him to have that bounce back season this year most know he’s capable of. Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott both believe in him, so it’s time to convert that belief into on-field success.