Depending on how one keeps score, David Nelson is developing at a quicker rate than Donald Jones as the No. 2 receiving option in the Buffalo Bills' suddenly high-scoring offense.
In addition to scoring the winning touchdown last Sunday against Oakland, Nelson is the team leader in receptions and yards -- the statistics that matter most for wideouts. But if not for Jones, the second-year receiver from Youngstown State, the Bills could easily be .500 instead of overflowing with confidence heading into Sunday's AFC East matchup with New England.
Underscored in the Bills' thrilling, 38-35 come-from-behind victory against the Raiders were two key plays by Jones on what proved to be the winning drive: A 9-yard reception on fourth-and-3 and an end-zone breakup of a Ryan Fitzpatrick pass that was nearly intercepted.
The result was a young receiver sending a message to his teammates that he can be counted on in tough moments. That is part of the blueprint to help Jones grow into his expanded role as the No. 2 receiver and Lee Evans' replacement.
"It's definitely a great feeling, considering I came here undrafted," Jones said. "I didn't expect to be here this fast, being in my second year, but definitely I'm excited about the opportunity and doing a good job of getting my job done. I plan on doing the same thing for the rest of the season."
Coming off a rookie season in which he recorded 18 receptions for 213 yards and a touchdown, Jones didn't anticipate moving up the depth chart so quickly. He looked forward to another year on special teams and perhaps filling in here and there in the offense. After all, Stevie Johnson was the established go-to threat, Evans the No. 2 and Marcus Easley, after missing his entire rookie season with a knee injury, was returning to the lineup.
"What I didn't expect," Jones said, "was becoming a full-time starter."
Then rumors began swarming about Evans being traded. In the days leading up to the trade, Evans pulled Jones aside and told him he might see more reps in practice.
"That's when I knew the trade was going to happen," Jones said. "But it was still a shock. It's definitely big shoes to fill but we're here in Week Three so that whole thing is behind us."
Instead of looking back, Jones is all business. He is wrestling with the weaker aspects of his game, such as fighting off defenders who crowd him at the line of scrimmage and making double moves. He can improve the technical side of his route running, which is one of his strengths.
But because the receiving corps is so depleted, the Bills are going to need Jones to produce more. Easley and Roscoe Parrish have been placed on season-ending injured reserve and Johnson is playing with a tender groin. Fitzpatrick has leaned heavily on Nelson (14 catches, 149 yards, one TD) and tight end Scott Chandler (seven receptions, three TDs) while Jones has only six receptions for 27 yards and a touchdown.
"Donald has not made as many big plays yet but I think as time goes on he's going to continue to be a bigger and bigger part of our offense," Bills coach Chan Gailey said. "He's a very good football player and I think going to be a very good football player for a long time here."
The two plays on the Bills final drive are an indication of his worth. With 1:03 remaining and the Bills facing a fourth and 3 from the Raiders' 24, Jones feinted slightly to the outside before slicing hard to the inside, executing a perfect slant move for a 9-yard gain and a first down. Two plays later, Fitzpatrick locked on Jones in the back corner of the end zone, but Oakland's Chris Johnson was there and briefly held the ball until Jones knocked it free.
"They were definitely big plays, but you have to step up whenever the ball comes to you," he said. "No matter what down it is, you have to make the play. You have to do whatever it takes to win."