Josh Allen was struggling before he was injured.
The Buffalo Bills’ rookie quarterback hasn’t thrown a touchdown in his last three starts. And he’s only tossed two scores in six games, the most recent in a Week 3 victory at Minnesota.
But as Allen sat and watched his teammates over the last month, while rehabbing a sprained elbow that cost him four starts, he couldn’t help but notice the emergence of wide receiver Zay Jones.
“One thing with Zay you’re always going to get is he works his tail off,” Allen said. “He’s never taken a play off. I haven’t seen one.”
Jones, a second-round pick out of East Carolina in 2017, enjoyed a long-awaited breakout performance with Matt Barkley under center in the Bills’ 41-10 demolition of the New York Jets on Nov. 11.
Jones set career highs with eight catches on 11 targets for 93 yards and a touchdown and would have had a second score had he not fumbled at the goal line. The ball was recovered in the end zone by tight end Jason Croom. But the 6-foot-2 receiver impressed by grabbing contested passes and finding ways to get open. Six of his eight catches went for first downs.
The performance earned Jones a mention among “10 Sunday standouts” by the analytics website Pro Football Focus, which credited him with catching all eight “catchable passes” thrown his way and highlighted his average of 4.65 yards per route run.
“I’ve worked very hard and I expect to have success,” Jones said. “So just putting in the work and time and expecting to do well, it’s grateful and humbling to get that result, showing that everything is paying off and heading in the right direction for myself.
“I’m just staying confident in myself and enjoying the ride as it goes. … I’ve been criticized for not getting separation and all those things and now everybody wants to talk about how I am doing (well). Just stick with the process, man, continue to work, trust in your team, trust in your teammates and just go ball and don’t hold back. I’m just proud of this team, the direction we’re headed. I feel like we’re going to take another great step this week.”
Jones intends to build off his career-best performance against the Jets when the Bills host the Jaguars on Sunday at New Era Field.
The Jaguars own the league’s third-ranked pass defense. They’re allowing an average of 210.2 yards through the air per game.
Jones had two catches for 20 yards in last season’s playoff loss at Jacksonville.
“Talented group,” Jones said. “I’m pretty sure everybody knows the type of players they have on their team, but at the end of the day, it’s just ball. I’m excited for the challenge. It’s a new opportunity against a very good defense. No shade on them, they’ve proven it. Secondary, interior players. I’m excited to go up against some of the best.”
Allen, should he return from injury as expected to face the Jaguars, will be the Bills’ fourth starting quarterback in as many games, following Derek Anderson, Nathan Peterman and Barkley.
Barkley, a career journeyman who signed with the Bills less than two weeks before leading the victory against the Jets, praised Jones’ precise route-running and ability to take advantage of weaknesses in New York’s coverage scheme.
“He’s a solid target,” Barkley said after the game. “I think on those plays, my reads took me there and on other plays I was going to other guys, but it’s not like I was singling Zay out. He did a great job of getting open and finding the windows. He has a great feel for where to sit and where to run.”
Despite his success, Jones agreed that it’s difficult having a different quarterback on any given week, because he’d like to develop some degree of consistency and on-field rapport.
“You want one consistent person so you know exactly what you’re expecting every single time,” Jones said. “Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case for us for multiple reasons, and reasons such as injury, things that you can’t control. So you can’t focus too much on that. I work with what I’m given. And I work with whatever coach wants me to do. A lot of things are out of my control. So it’s up to me to take advantage of the opportunities that I’m given. And the quarterback situation, I have no say in that, so that’s not something that I really focus on.
“I’m happy that Josh is back, though. Obviously, he’s the future of this franchise. And he’s got all the physical ability in the world. The mental game is continuously growing for him. And so my job is just to go out there and perform no matter who is behind center.”
Jones leads the Bills with 37 catches, 392 receiving yards and two touchdown catches this season. His first score was on a pass from Peterman on Oct. 14 against Houston, after Allen had been knocked from the game.
That production surpasses his rookie season totals of 27 catches for 316 yards and matches his two touchdowns from a year ago.
“To lead an NFL team in any category is something that you should be proud of,” Jones said, “so I don’t let anyone try to compare myself to other people, because I’m not other people. I’m me. And I’m going to continue to be me. And I know when my time comes, as I just continue to work, I’m going to really turn heads and do what I need to do.”
Bills coach Sean McDermott cast Jones as an example for other players to follow.
“You’ve seen a young man that went through some adversity last season and last offseason, and he stuck with it and he continued to work at it on and off the field,” McDermott said. “When you watch Zay practice — you guys are out there — he practices in a way that allows him to have success or gives him a chance to have success on Sundays, and that’s a great lesson for a lot of the young guys we have out there.”
Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll has used Jones’ skill set to put him in the best possible position to produce.
Jones has thrived this season from the slot, where he’s caught 27 passes for 268 yards.
He attributes that success to familiarity with the position, having played the slot his first three years in college.
“I made the transition to outside receiver my senior year, and so there’s been a lot of adjusting,” Jones said. “And last year I was the guy, the ‘X’ so to speak, and it was just a learning process of having to figure out how to play outside receiver in the National Football League. It’s not an easy job. And I was critiqued pretty heavily on it. And I was like, ‘OK, whatever.’ Millions of people can’t even do this, you know?
“But now I have an opportunity that I’ve had experience playing outside and inside, and I’m just getting more comfortable as my experience and my career goes along. And I’m just grateful for the lows, for sure, because now I can appreciate some of the highs.”
As Allen goes, so too will his receivers. His next touchdown pass to Jones will be his first.
But Jones has shown he has the ability to make a difference on Sundays, even if his season-long production doesn’t quite stack up with peers across the league.
Jones' 37 catches are tied with DeSean Jackson and Alshon Jeffery for 62nd in the NFL. His 392 receiving yards ranks 79th. His two receiving touchdowns are tied for 88th. His 10.6 yards per reception rank 92nd.
“If you want to take my stats and compare them to other players, you might not see the steps and strides that I’ve improved in,” Jones said. “But I know my improvement based just off of last year. I still feel like I’m way beyond what I was last year. And the numbers, they speak for themselves as far as being more productive and helping my team more. That’s what it’s all about, right? You just continuously get better, day by day, month by month, year by year. So I’ve got a lot of gratitude for where I’m at, but I’m not complacent with it. I’m always going to keep working.”