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Zay Jones' viral video feels like redemption after rookie's rough start

Zay Jones stood on the edge of the field closest to the Buffalo Bills’ locker room after practice Wednesday and asked teammates if they wanted to try their hand at the “Zay Jones Challenge” as video cameras waited next to him at the ready.

Jones has received widespread attention for the viral video of him appearing to float back up from the turf after falling down during last week’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs (video below). It was one of the first things ESPN showed on SportsCenter after Monday Night Football. The NFL Network’s “Good Morning Football” did a three-minute segment on it Tuesday. Jones enjoyed even seeing the actor Michael B. Jordan talking about the video challenge to recreate the stunt, which Jones has been doing since high school.

“It was pretty crazy because I had no idea it was on social media like that, and then everyone was texting and calling me like, you’re going viral right now,” Jones said. “And I was like, for what?”

For Jones, the unexpected positive publicity has been a nice way to symbolize his progress this season, countering the discussion of his struggles and dropped passes that were weekly talking points during a rough start to his rookie season.

“There’s been highs and lows,” Jones said of his year. “Going back to the Carolina Panthers [game], I drop a ball, and then now I can levitate off the ground and people love it.”

Jones couldn’t haul in a pass near the end zone in the final seconds of the Bills’ 9-3 loss to the Panthers in Week Two. He owned up to the play immediately after the game, but would continue to struggle the following weeks. The analytics site Pro Football Focus credited him with another dropped pass in Weeks 3, 4 and 5 while he failed to record more than one reception in each game.

Jones is aware of what the criticism sounded like.

“It was, the NCAA’s all-time catches leader has struggled to catch a pass,” Jones said. "It was very humbling to go through that experience and know that you can always improve; you always have work to do. I feel like it has helped me for the best. It’s going to help me become a better player and a better leader and a better teammate in the future so I’m actually kind of glad this has all occurred.”

Jones’ last three games have been better. He logged his first career touchdown in Week 9 against the Jets and posted new career highs with six catches for 53 yards despite leaving the game with a knee injury. He returned from the injury in Week 11 and set a new high with 68 yards before scoring against last week against the Chiefs.

“Over these last couple weeks I’ve felt like the game has really slowed down tremendously,” Jones said. “The game becomes more second nature rather than thinking or this anxious worrying, like, what do I have to do?”

One thing Jones is still knocked for is his limited number of receptions given his high volume of targets. Jones is officially credited with 23 receptions on 61 targets, which is a catch rate of only 37.7 percent. That’s one of the lowest figures in the league this season and among the worst ever since targets became an official stat in 1992. Only 56 qualifying players have ever finished a season with a catch rate under 40 percent, per Pro Football Reference.

But those numbers come with a – ahem – catch. Not all targets are created equal. Pro Football Focus, which tracks every play, said only 28 of Jones’ 54 targets this season were considered “catchable.” Of 89 qualifying wide receivers, Jones’ catchable target percentage of 51.9 is the third lowest in the league. Fellow Bills wide receiver Jordan Matthews, meanwhile, has received the fifth-highest rate of catchable targets at 80.6 percent. (The discrepancy in total targets between PFF and the NFL could come from batted passes or throwaways that they didn’t consider Jones to be targeted on, or passes that missed multiple receivers where the target was given to another player.)

Bills rookie Zay Jones 'settling into the offense and who I am as a football player'

These numbers doesn’t take Jones off the hook completely – his drop rate, for instance (five on 28 catchable targets, or 17.86 percent) ranks 81st out of 89 receivers – but they should help put his struggles in better context.

"By no means do I feel I’m where I need to be," Jones said. "But with Tyrod [Taylor] and that connection, he constantly trusts me, he tells me that. He’s going to keep coming back to me. It’s good to have that confidence coming from such a veteran player, especially your quarterback."

“That’s one of the great parts about our team,” coach Sean McDermott said Wednesday while talking about Jones’ resilience. “You know, he persevered. He showed that he’s got grit and mental toughness and he worked himself through it. We kept coming back to him.”

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