Buffalo Bills wide receiver Zay Jones had a tumultuous first year in the NFL. He was thrust into a bigger role than most expected due to the Bills’ lack of talent at the wide receiver position. According to Pro Football Focus, Jones finished with 69 targets but was only able to reel in 29 of them for 336 yards and two touchdowns.
The transition to the NFL for wide receivers is one of the toughest, even for the NCAA’s all-time receptions leader. That couldn’t have been any more evident with the drop issues that Jones dealt with. Of all receivers who took 25% of their teams’ snaps, Jones’s drop rate of 15.63% was the 7th-highest.
Then came the offseason and in January, Zay’s father, Robert Jones, disclosed to our Rob Quinn that his son needed surgery to repair a torn labrum. The injury was so bad that when Jones went to grab a glass of water, his arm fell out of his socket.
But the hits kept on coming. In March, Jones had a now-infamous meltdown released by TMZ. He was charged with felony vandalism, though the charges were later dropped.
May rolled around, and Jones needed knee surgery, which has kept him out the entire spring. So not only did Jones struggle on the field in 2017, but it also carried over well into the offseason.
Jones is expected to be back by training camp, but having missed the entire offseason he has a lot of catching up to do, not just physically, but mentally, as the Bills are in the midst of installing a new playbook. According to general manager Brandon Beane, Jones is “not just going to necessarily go right to the top of the line. He’ll have to earn his way.”
In order to ascend the depth chart, Jones will need to get healthy and string together more plays like these.
Zay Jones, Converting First Downs
For as bad of a rookie campaign as Zay Jones had, he was pretty good in one area: first down conversions. Jones was able to convert first downs off of his receptions at the highest rate of any tight end, running back, or receiver on the Bills.
Eyes and Route Running
In one of his better games as a Buffalo Bill, Jones does a great job of manipulating the Raiders’ defender. The Bills are running a flood concept with Jones running a deep over/crossing route. Jones executes a stair-step technique by getting vertical, then using his eyes to hold the defensive back for three strides before planting hard and accelerating across the field for a first down.
Body Lean, Flexibility
One of Jones’s strengths is his flexibility. Coming out of East Carolina, many draft analysts, including myself, critiqued his lower body strength and power because of his thin frame. What he lacks in power, he makes up for in long, lean muscle and flexibility. In 2017, when the Bills wanted to attack with their quick passing game by utilizing slants, Jones was able to win. He was targeted 10 times, of which he caught five for 60 yards. He converted first downs on 80% when running a slant, much like this five-step slant vs. the Chargers. Jones displays his body lean, flexibility and hand usage to get open.
Jones showed flashes of his ability to not only manipulate leverage of defenders with his flexibility, but also by adjusting his stride. Changing the pace at which routes are run and changing stride can really throw off aggressive defenders looking to jump routes. On the snap, Jones sets up his three-step slant with short, choppy steps as he attacks CB Stephon Gilmore wide, but then manipulates his stride as he approaches the breaking point. This suddenness paired with his flexibility allows Jones to change direction and show his numbers to the quarterback quickly.
Two-way Go, Flexibility
Against the Jets in week nine, Jones finally got into the end zone. He aligns tight, and as the ball is snapped he closes the cushion on the defensive back, who is in off coverage. As Jones approaches the breaking point, he sets himself up nicely with a two-way go. This gives him the upper hand because the defensive back has zero leverage and/or help to either side. Once the gap has closed, Jones drops his hips and brings his center of gravity under control. He then plants hard with his left foot to propel him to the middle of the field, rotates his right hip and right foot at a 90-degree angle, allowing him to rotate his body smoothly as he breaks for the post.
As training camp nears and Jones’s reps begin to increase, the coaching staff will need to see Zay up his game. He has a tall task ahead of him because he needs to get up to speed both physically and mentally. On paper, the wide receiver position appears devoid of big names, talent, and depth, but the Bills addressed the position in free agency and the draft, and they want competition. Jones needs to dive right in because even though he was drafted in the 2nd round in 2017, nothing will be handed to him, especially after his up-and-down first year in the NFL. Brandon Beane stated that Jones has “new goals, new motives. And he’s really done a great job in the meeting room, but we know you still got to translate to the field.” Given Jones’s new mindset, he should be able to “smile in the face of his doubters next season when he’s back playing at full strength.”