A light bulb seemingly went off for Zay Jones last season.
Through the first 11 games of 2018, the Buffalo Bills’ wide receiver was targeted 60 times and made 27 catches for 392 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The “bust” word was even whispered about the 2017 second-round draft pick.
The low point came in a Week 11 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, when Jones was targeted just a single time (the pass was incomplete). From that point forward, however, he looked like a different player.
Over the final five games, Jones was targeted 42 times and made 29 catches for 260 yards and five touchdowns. His final numbers – 102 targets, 56 catches, 652 yards, seven touchdowns – doubled the production of his rookie year (27 catches, 316 yards, two touchdowns).
“None of last year's stats that I had matter,” Jones said Tuesday after the Bills’ organized team activity. “They don't carry over to this year. So that was a good stepping stone, good production for myself from year one to year two, but year three, I've got to let that stuff go.”
Even though he’s entering his third season, Jones is participating in spring practices for the first time. As a rookie, he suffered a knee sprain during the first OTA, and last year had shoulder surgery in January and knee injury in May that kept him out throughout the spring into the first week of training camp.
“Everyone's different. My path, I had some setbacks in the beginning with some surgeries and things like that, not being able to complete in the weight room lifting everything,” he said. “Now that I'm healthy and I have a full offseason of being able to reset everything and build it from the ground up, I feel more stable and more in control of my body.”
Jones has added about 10 pounds of muscle to his 6-foot-2-inch frame. He hopes that the increased size will help him use his hands more to get off press coverage and be more physical at the point of attack. Always a willing blocker, he also wants to be more of a contributor in the run game.
“The offseason program itself with our strength staff has been great,” he said. “I've gotten stronger, faster, bigger. Strength coaches have done a good job of helping me with that, and the training staff as well as far as what I intake, what I eat and how I'm working out. I've been increasing that mass and hopefully it transitions to playing bigger and playing stronger on the field.”
Jones played the second half of his rookie season with a torn labrum in his shoulder.
“It’s tough when you're playing with a bum shoulder or a bum knee – whatever it is,” he said. “Now that I've had that time to heal up, add more strength and add more size, I'm looking forward to going out and competing at an even higher level.”
The Bills reshaped their wide receiver room this offseason, bringing in established veterans John Brown and Cole Beasley in free agency. Along with Robert Foster they make up a top four at the position along with Jones, although coach Sean McDermott said Tuesday there is no depth chart at this point in the offseason.
“Compete. Do your job. That’s what brings out the best in people,” McDermott said. “If you’re wired the right way – and I expect Zay and Robert are – those are two young good players that will compete and step their game up and continue to develop and continue to grow and evolve.
“You’ll see a guy with the ‘ones’ and the next day he’s with the ‘twos.’ You’ll see a guy with the ‘twos’ and the next day he’s with the ‘ones.’ We’re trying to find the right pieces as we evolve and grow and come to the final 53.”
That increased level of competition was noticeable in the first practice open to the media. Players on both sides got after it on a level that’s usually not seen until the dog days of training camp.
“It's competing for sure,” Jones said. “You saw guys getting after it, talking a little bit of trash. It's OTAs. That's stuff that comes later, in camp and stuff, but everybody is getting after it and competing. It's a new tone, I think, that we're setting. It starts with the veteran guys who have been on this team and some of the new guys coming in. So just very excited with the direction this new Bills team is headed.”
At some point, there will be a depth chart. The question of who will be the No. 1 receiver on it looms over the roster at the moment. The way Jones ended the 2018 season puts him squarely in that mix.
“No. 1 receiver is a real thing. Obviously, I'd be lying to you if people haven't thought about that, but I think what's unique about this group is no one is trying to take that title and be like, 'OK, I'm this. Y'all listen to me.' It hasn't been that way,” he said. “I feel like this group has played with a great chemistry. … As far as, 'Is Cole the No. 1? Is John the No. 1?’ You guys, y'all experts, y'all can make that statement. As far as what I'm going to do, it’s just focus on being the best Zay I can possibly be, because on Sundays I want to produce and do the best I can for this team.”
Even though he’s only entering his third season, Jones is the longest-tenured receiver on the roster. That elevates him to a leadership role within his position group.
“I feel like we can all lead in our own ways,” Jones said. “For me, I think I'm one of the last Bills receivers that's been here over these last couple of years throughout this entire process, but also respecting Cole Beasley and 'Smoke' (Brown). Those guys have played in the league for a long time – contract after contract. I was just talking to Cole about some of the things he was doing in Dallas, and he was helping me. I talk to 'Smoke' literally all the time. So just having that camaraderie with them, building that foundation with them, we're all going to lead in our ways. So I'm excited to have them. They can only add to what I can bring.”
The Bills made a pair of roster moves Wednesday, claiming offensive tackle De’Ondre Wesley and signing tight end Mik’Quan Deane. To make room on the 90-man roster, the team released safety Abraham Wallace and offensive lineman Blake Hance – both undrafted rookie signings.
Wesley, 26, has spent part of the past two seasons on the Bills’ practice squad. He was released by the Bills in September 2018 and eventually spent the rest of the year on the Colts’ practice squad. Indianapolis released him Tuesday. Wesley has six games of regular-season experience, all of it coming with the Baltimore Ravens in 2015.
Deane, 6 feet, 4 inches and 240 pounds, finished his college career at Western Kentucky. He made 55 catches for 673 yards and five touchdowns in two seasons with the Hilltoppers after playing in junior college for Northeastern Oklahoma A&M.
Deane originally signed with the Seahawks as an undrafted free agent, but was released May 13.