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Reflecting on Buffalo Bills WR Zay Jones’ uninspiring rookie season

Jones had a rough debut, but was it really all that bad?

NFL: Buffalo Bills at New York Jets Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The Buffalo Bills’ 2017 second-round pick, wide receiver Zay Jones, did not live up to expectations many had for him entering this past season. The hype surrounding Jones began when the Bills traded up in last year’s draft to select the East Carolina product, who set the career FBS record for receptions over the course of his four seasons there, 37th overall. The ECU star finished his career with a 399 receptions, 4279 receiving yards and 23 touchdowns.

Expectations for Jones only grew bigger after the Bills dealt former fourth overall pick Sammy Watkins to the Los Angeles Rams in August, thereby clearing way for Jones to become the team’s top option out wide, at least until Kelvin Benjamin was acquired midway through last season, anyway.

The end result: Jones finished 2017 with just 27 receptions for 316 yards and two touchdowns; good for just fourth, fifth, and second, respectively, among all Bills pass-catchers.

Historically speaking, wideouts generally haven’t fared very well in their first year in the league. Data complied by Football Ousiders, shows that it usually takes wideouts a few seasons to break out.

With that in mind, was Jones’ season really all that bad? Let’s find out by comparing Jones’ rookie campaign with those from some of the other wideouts from the class of 2017, particularly those who were drafted ahead of him.

Jones finished 2017 in rookie Top 10

In receptions, total receiving yards, yards per game, and touchdowns, Jones finished ranked eighth, ninth, 10th, and tied for fifth, respectively.

Here’s how the four receivers drafted ahead of Jones performed in 2017:

  • Corey Davis (fifth overall), Tennessee Titans: 34 rec, 375 Yds, 34.1 Yds/G, Catch % 52.3, zero TDs in 11 games
  • Mike Williams (seventh), Los Angeles Chargers: 11 rec, 95 yards, 9.5 Yds/G, Catch % 47.8, and zero TDs in 10 games
  • John Ross (ninth), Cincinnati Bengals: 0 Rex, 0 Yds, 0 YDs/G, Catch % 0.0, zero TDs in 3 games
  • JuJu Smith-Schuster (30th), Pittsburgh Steelers 58 Rec, 917 Yds, 65.5 Yds/G, Catch % 47.8, and seven TDs in 14 games

And the next wide receiver taken after Jones:

  • Curtis Samuel (40th) - Carolina Panthers: 15 Rec, 115 Yds, 12.8 Yds/G, Catch % 57.7, and zero TDs in nine games

Jones’ dreadful catch percentage of just 36.5 was repeatedly brought up by many as a knock on his game. Later, we’ll explore two factors that may or may not have played a role in this number being so low.

Overall, though, Jones’ stats were nothing to boast about, but as mentioned previously and further evidenced in the stats graphic, very few rookie receivers actually end up putting up numbers worthy of truly being proud of.

Buffalo’s dreadful passing attack, and Jones’ recently revealed injury

Generally speaking, most athletes tend not make excuses for when they perform poorly, I like to generally shy away from letting them off in the hook in this regard as well, but a couple of factors worth mentioning when evaluating Jones’ 2017 performance: Buffalo’s 31st-ranked passing attack, and Jones shoulder injury, which was revealed by his father a week after the team’s playoff loss to the Jaguars.

Nearly all of the rookie wide receivers listed above had the benefit of catching passes from proven, or at the very least, respected passers, while Jones meanwhile was catching balls from Tyrod Taylor, a QB many do not respect as a passer, and one who had his worst season since becoming the Bills starter in 2015. Taylor was just one half of the equation, however, the other was now ex-offensive coordinator Rick Dennison, who was fired earlier this month after just one season on the job.

In regards to his shoulder injury, Jones’ father, Robert, a former Pro Bowl linebacker and three-time Super Bowl Champion with the Cowboys , told Rob Quinn of BillsWire that his son played with a torn labrum for the majority of last season and would require surgery to repair it.

On Jan. 16, Jones shared on Twitter that he had successful undergone surgery.

Take the team’s offensive struggles and Jones injury for what you will, but I would be remiss to not mention either


Did Jones have a subpar season? Absolutely. Did his fellow rookie wideouts severely outperform him? Absolutely not. Was his performance in line historically with how other receivers have struggled as rookies? Sure was.

I bring all of these points up to say that I have no real idea how Jones will fare going forward. Perhaps he remains healthy next season and thrives in new Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll’s offense, that very well could feature a new starting QB. I don’t know. But one thing I’m certain of is that those rushing to write off Jones should at least wait till he’s had another year to develop. Like head coach Sean McDermott’s mantra, with wide receivers you’re better off trusting the process.