They can hear it all.
The questions. The concerns. The doubts.
The Bills’ receiving corps knows it’s a work in progress, an unfinished product that has yet to prove itself in a game that actually matters. But that all could change Sunday. And rookie Zay Jones is counting on it.
The second-round pick expected to be shepherded by Sammy Watkins and tutored by sage veteran Anquan Boldin to this point. But instead, Jones is preparing to make his regular-season debut against the New York Jets alongside newcomer Jordan Matthews.
But in spite of all of the roster changes, Jones is quick to highlight what the Bills do have in his eyes: “the best rushing attack in the NFL” with quarterback Tyrod Taylor and five-time Pro Bowl running back LeSean McCoy, and plenty of playmaking receivers.
“I’m excited to see them score and celebrate in the end zone,” Jones said Thursday of Taylor and McCoy, who combined for 20 of the Bills’ 46 touchdowns in 2016. “So when it’s my time to block, I’m going to be the best I can.
“But when the ball’s in the air, it’s the wide receivers’ time. We’re going to be an explosive group. We’re going to showcase what we can do.”
Their receiver room is devoid of clear star power and comprised of three rookies and only two pass-catchers with more than five years of NFL experience (Brandon Tate and Andre Holmes). Then there’s Matthews, the former Eagle who arrived three weeks ago via trade and suffered a cracked sternum 15 minutes into his first Bills practice. But after two days of being full-go, Matthews insisted he’ll have no restrictions against the Jets.
And when the small crowd of reporters scattered from his locker stall, he expressed nothing but optimism about the Bills offense.
“I’m extremely confident in what we can do. Extremely confident,” said Matthews, who caught 73 passes for 804 yards last season. “The biggest thing I always say is: You can win in this league with a great defense — which I feel like we have — an offensive line — our offensive line is one of the best in the league — and a great quarterback. And I feel like we have that.”
“The other pieces, the skill players, that is a huge component of us coming together. …I know everybody wants to have a finished product and you know what you’re going to get. That’s just not what we have right now. But we know from the inside that we’re confident in what we have. We just have to show people.”
Fans, however, aren’t yet convinced. For good reason.
The Bills finished 7-9 last season. Missed the playoffs for a record 17th straight season. Had the No. 1-ranked rushing attack, but the third-worst passing offense. And now, have a new coach, a new general manager, a new secondary, a new receiving corps … and the list goes on. Plenty of people inside the building have plenty to prove. But it’s a challenge Matthews gladly accepts.
“I can understand (the questions),” he said. “…People aren’t going to be as patient, maybe sometimes, as the people in the football office may think they should be. But at the same time, man, I know for a fact that Zay is one of the most polished rookies I’ve been around."
Change is nothing new for Matthews, who dealt with a quarterback carousel throughout his three years with the Eagles (“I’ve never played with the same quarterback two straight years. But every single year I’ve had production,” he said, matter-of-factly). But now, the fourth-year receiver believes he’s teamed up with “easily the most athletic quarterback I’ve played with in my whole career.”
That optimism is, of course, expected. However, the true test for him, Jones and the rest of the receiving corps begins Sunday, when Jets head coach Todd Bowles dials up defensive coverages to try to contain Taylor and keep the Bills offense off-balance.
Ask Jones and he’ll tell you why it’s easy to be confident in Matthews, a versatile guy who can be used out wide or inside. “There’s a difference between running routes and having route craft,” said the rookie. “And Jordan brings that to the table.”
But for all of their confidence, the pair also has put in much-needed extra work on the field. On Thursday, Jones stayed after practice to work on passing drills with Taylor while Matthews spent several minutes on the JUGS machine.
They can hear the doubters already. And they both know those questions will linger for days and possibly weeks to come. But so far, the Bills’ young receivers are unfazed by the nonbelievers.
“I understand it because there are a lot of unknowns,” Jones said, before heading into the locker room. “People are not as familiar with this group. As a rookie, people may not have ever seen me before, which is fair. And then you have Jordan Matthews, a production-based receiver, but people are not as familiar with what he brings. ‘How does he fit into the scheme?’ And then you have hard-working guys and reliable guys, (who aren’t) superstar-caliber names…
“People are going to make assumptions. And that’s perfectly fine.”