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The Buffalo Bills have put a tremendous amount of pressure on their 2nd round pick, WR Zay Jones, who is being counted on to fill some big shoes left by Sammy Watkins. Sure, he has Jordan Matthews to lighten the load, but Matthews has practiced very little due to injury and is still learning the playbook.
As you may know, I was very high on Zay Jones coming out of college. I believed that he could be a featured WR, but I won’t sit here and claim I expected such an ascent to occur this year.
As bad the offense has looked over the last three weeks, one player stood out more than most others: Zay Jones. He has played in 93 snaps over the course of three games, been targeted by Bills QBs 14 times, and was able to bring in six catches for 70 yards. He only has seven yards after the catch and zero touchdowns, though, so why am I even writing about him?
Because even though he hasn’t lit up the box score, he has shown that he will be a receiver opposing defenses are going to have to keep an eye on, particularly when a big play is needed.
Many of the skills that I saw on film back at East Carolina that made me believe he could be a #1 WR in the future are flashing in this preseason. New Bills WR coach Phil McGeoghan was also Zay’s WR coach at East Carolina, and he has been crucial to Jones’s development. Jones works hard at his craft, and if you look closely, you can see it. On the following play, you can see him show off a very good lean at 45 degrees like a sprinter as he fires out of his stance, pumps his arms, and works hard. Such effort makes it appear that he is going to go deep. Once he gets to the desired depth of the route he drops his hips cleanly and shows his numbers tohis QB.
At East Carolina he did most of his damage from the slot, and many scouts counted that against him. But what they didn’t account for was how much his mental processing as a slot receiver in an air raid offense would actually help him as an outside receiver. On the following play, the motion declares man coverage and Zay knows that the ball will be coming to him. On the snap he uses a stutter release, catches the defender Rasul Douglas’s attention with his eyes, then gives a shoulder shake, which causes the DB to become flatfooted. This is key because Douglas likes to use his length and hands to disrupt. Because of the move, Zay is able to get inside leverage with very little pushback from Douglas. Jones wins the inside leverage by planting hard and exploding to the middle of the field. He displays his play speed by knowing that as soon as he catches it, there’s a good change that he is going to take a lick. He protects himself accordingly.
Jones didn’t gain 1,744 yards last season by accident. His combination of suddenness and burst make him tough to cover one-on-one. He knows defenders are reactionary, and he uses that against them. His stutter releases test the patience of DBs, and his ability to plant and drive make him difficult to defend when he wants to gain inside leverage on in-breaking routes that Peterman loves.
In 2016 he worked from the slot 30.4% of the time, and he caught 64 passes for 611 yards. This amount of slot work allowed him to not only read coverages, but also to learn how to manipulate defenders. On the following play, Zay is again matched up with CB Daniel Robertson. You saw Jones roast him on the prior play, only to have the play called back. Well, the same route is called here, and Jones expects Robertson to remember their last encounter. Rather than use the same release and moves, Zay adjusts. On the snap, he again tries to get Robertson to open his hips to the sideline, but Robertson doesn’t budge, so Zay uses his eyes to hold the defender. It’s a veteran tactic that Jones uses frequently. The stutter release, eye contact, and square shoulders hold Robertson because he is unsure of which direction Jones is going to break. That split second allows Jones to accelerate and separate.
Toward the end of the first half of the game against the Eagles, QB Nathan Peterman and Jones showed off some of the rapport that they built back at the East/West Shrine game. It’s been evident all preseason, but on this play maybe more than others. The Bills have the ball on the left hash and dial up an all verticals concept. Post-snap, the defense drops into a Tampa 2 coverage. This favors the offense, but the play must be timed and thrown on point. On the snap, Zay releases wide, dips his shoulder in order to shrink his surface area, then slightly rips through to clear Douglas. Once clear, his recognition of the coverage is apparent, as he gears down. This makes the throw into the ‘honey hole’ by Peterman that much easier. Peterman shows off his accuracy and awareness by throwing the back shoulder pass to Jones, so as to avoid leading him into a big hit by the safety. Zay tracks it, elevates, and snags the pass with his hands, and he shows off his body control and awareness of the sideline by tapping his feet before getting driven out. This type of play by two rookies is what gives Bills fans hope for the future.
There is no doubt that the Bills’ offense could use a deep threat WR, a guy who can lift coverages, making it that much easier to expose the underneath game that we expect from Dennison. Jones really isn’t known for being that guy. Are we sleeping on him, though? I mean, he did run a 4.45 forty yard dash and caught 12 deep passes for 411 yards and three touchdowns in 2016. But at this level, I think it’s safe to say that he won’t play the deep threat role. However, when dialed up correctly, watch out; he will catch people off guard.
Remember, he doesn’t win with top end speed. He does it with suddenness, change of direction, route pacing, utilization of his eyes, head fakes to gain leverage, body control, sideline awareness, and, most importantly, hands. Jones exhibits a level of savviness and maturity that you don’t often see from rookies.
If you still believe that he can’t play outside, then I don’t know what you’ve been watching. It’s pretty clear he has all of the tools in place to manipulate defenders to win from anywhere on the field.