Zay Jones: The Rookie Your Team Needs
August 7, 2017 | Josh Stanley
During these long summer days of mock drafts and training camp puff pieces it’s easy to get excited over the new rookies in a league full of seasoned veterans. As you put together your draft board, it’s a challenge to balance the tremendous upside of these fresh faces against the proven play of old hands. But there are always a few rookies who are worth targeting and who may end up being that coveted breakout everyone seeks. In the 2017 season, we need to look no further than the 37th pick of this year’s draft, Zay Jones.
His name is synonymous with reception. As one of the most productive wide receivers in college football last season, the former East Carolina Pirate made sure this would remain true for years to come by stamping his name in the NCAA record book next to “Most Career Receptions” and “Most Receptions in a Single Season.” Zay Jones is now hoping to bring that same kind of success to Buffalo where he will join fellow wideout Sammy Watkins.
After seeing what Jones has done throughout his college career, it’s hard not to get carried away imagining what kind of numbers he could produce with Tyrod Taylor. Over 49 games Zay Jones produced an astounding 399 catches, 4,279 yards and 23 touchdowns. While he was far from prolific his entire time at East Carolina University, he improved his yardage total and number of catches each year, putting an exclamation point on his college career by catching 158 passes and gaining 1,746 yards in his senior season. Most will be quick to point out that his alma mater, while being in a top mid-major league, was not in a Power 5 conference and therefore he did not play against the highest level of competition. However, upon a closer look Jones did produce against Power 5 schools, averaging 7.8 catches and 78.2 yards per game, including games against South Carolina in 2016 where he put up 22 catches for 190 yards and against Florida in 2015 where he hauled in 14 catches for 135 yards.
The talent however is only half the equation when looking for a breakout player to contribute to your team. The other half is opportunity and that is something the Bills have plenty of for Zay Jones.There is no need to worry about where he played his college ball, nor is there a need to worry about Buffalo finding him a role in their offense. His senior year Jones was coached by former Dolphins wide receiver coach, Phil McGeoghan, who moved him all over the field. The Bills won’t hesitate to put Jones in a number of roles either, especially since McGeoghan went along with Jones from East Carolina to Buffalo where he is the new wide receivers coach.
After several free agents left for warmer climates there are now 171 targets up for grabs, but the receiver depth behind Watkins and Jones is as comforting as a February snowstorm in Buffalo. The Bills signed former Oakland Raider Andre Holmes, who has never topped 700 yards and 50 catches in 5 seasons. After that it is a barren, snowy wasteland. Rod Streater looks to be holding down the third wide receiver spot and by all accounts is impressing everyone in camp, but again this is a guy whose career high is 888 yards and 60 receptions. Then there is Brandon Tate, but let’s not worry about him.
Bills Wide Receiver Depth
So if the depth behind Jones isn’t a concern, then we can turn our attention to the perennially injured, yet immensely talented Sammy Watkins. If healthy he has the talent to attract the defense’s attention. This could prove helpful early in the season for the rookie Jones, giving him more space to operate and allowing him to face lesser talented defensive backs. As mentioned there are an additional 171 targets available for receivers and while the Bills prefer a run-heavy scheme, the short and intermediate routes that Zay Jones excels at could become an extension of that running game.
Now, having Watkins healthy for a full season would be great for all fans who like to watch exciting football, but the reality is he has only played one full season and has already found himself on the trainer’s table this summer. So if he were to go down with another injury, than we would all get a glimpse of the future with Zay Jones taking over the number 1 role. The new coaching staff of the Bills will be eager to see the potential future in Jones, especially since they did not offer a contract extension to Watkins and seem to be indicating he must prove himself if he wants to remain in Buffalo.
The talent and opportunity are there for Jones, but there are going to be 31 other teams, whose main goal is to limit this as much as possible. However, when we take a look at the schedule this season and how ProFootballFocus.com ranks the secondary units the Bills will face, it’s hard not to see Jones as one of the top rookie pass catchers when all is said and done. He’ll begin his professional career with two games that should not be too difficult, giving him a chance to get comfortable playing on Sunday afternoons. These will be against the Jets and the Panthers who have the 28th and 22nd ranked secondaries respectively. He then has a soft schedule outside of two difficult stretches throughout the season; Week 3-4 where he will go up against the secondaries of the Broncos (4th) and Falcons (5th) followed by Week 10-12, where he will face the Chargers (9th), Chiefs (10th), and the Patriots (2nd). It’s hard to predict how a defensive unit will look at the end of the season, but as of right now, Zay Jones could be the golden ticket for fantasy players in the playoffs. He’ll face the mediocre secondaries of the Colts (29th) in Week 13 and will have a chance to see the Dolphins (19th) twice in Weeks 14 and 16.
Zay Jones has the potential to be something special on your team. With his ability and opportunity there is a chance he may be AFC Rookie of the Year, just as his father was NFC Rookie of the Year for the Cowboys in 1992. So as you plan your draft save a pick for the under-the-radar rookie. At the very least he can be a weekly contributor, but if things fall just right Jones may end up making you look like the fantasy genius you know that you are.