This is the second in a 10-part series previewing some of the biggest questions the Buffalo Bills will have to answer when training camp begins July 27 at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford.
It wasn’t so long ago that very little was expected of rookie wide receivers in the NFL.
Conventional wisdom was that the transition from the college game to the pros was a difficult one to make. That’s been turned on its head in recent years, though, as 11 first-year receivers between 2014-16 have recorded 60 or more receptions in their debut season.
So the expectations for Zay Jones with the Buffalo Bills are understandably high in 2017. Drafted in the second round, after Buffalo traded up, Jones will be counted on to replace Robert Woods’ production as the Bills’ No. 2 receiver.
Last year, Woods finished with 51 catches for 613 yards and one touchdown in 13 games. It’s not unreasonable to expect Jones to meet or exceed those numbers in every category.
Betting website bookmaker.eu, in fact, has Jones as the favorite to lead rookies in receiving yards, at minus-140 (meaning a person would have to bet $140 to win $100). Last year, New Orleans’ Michael Thomas led rookies with 92 catches for 1,137 yards and nine touchdowns. In 2015, the Raiders’ Amari Cooper had 72 catches for 1,070 yards and six TDs, while in 2014, the Giants’ Odell Beckham Jr. put up 91 catches for 1,305 yards and 12 TDs.
If Jones is on that level, he’d be on the shortlist for the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year award. Only once before in franchise history has a member of the Bills won that award – quarterback Dennis Shaw took it home in 1970.
Perhaps it’s premature to saddle Jones with such expectations. Considering all he’s got working for him, though, it’s understandable.
The son of a three-time NFL champion, he has the bloodlines. The NCAA Division I record holder for single-season (158) and career receptions (399), he has the production. With his former wide receivers coach at East Carolina, Phil McGeoghan, currently holding the same job on the Bills’ staff, he has a familiarity and knowledge of what’s expected of him.
"He’s seen me perform, knows what kind of person I am," Jones said on the night he was drafted by the Bills. “He knows about my character."
By all accounts, that’s NFL ready, too. Jones’ leadership was praised at East Carolina almost as much as his hands and route running. On the night he was drafted, Jones wasn’t shy about saying he had the best hands in the 2017 class.
He did it in a way that came across as confident, not cocky.
"I’m very confident in myself. I don’t shy away from saying that," he said. "You have to think that way, you have to have that mindset.
"This is what I do. God provided for myself and my family and this is how I make a living and I don’t take my craft lightly."
The West Coast offense installed by new offensive coordinator Rick Dennison should give Jones plenty of opportunities. A player can’t make 399 catches in college unless a good deal of them are coming on short timing routes, and that was Jones’ specialty. Those same types of routes should present themselves with the Bills.
A knee injury slowed Jones some during the spring, but when he was healthy, he looked every bit the part of a No. 2 receiver, matching up – and having success – against first-round draft pick Tre’Davious White, the cornerback from LSU.
With a (knock on wood, Bills fans) healthy Sammy Watkins on the other side of the line, Jones should see some favorable coverages, too.
So perhaps those expectations aren’t too lofty, after all. Of course, none of those collegiate records or familiarity with the coaching staff will mean anything once the Bills report to St. John Fisher College next week for the start of training camp. Once the pads go on, Jones will be just another rookie trying to land a job.
"He’s wired the right way and he wants to earn it,” coach Sean McDermott said. "So that’s what he’s coming in here to do."