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Zay Jones Film Study – Time to Step Up

When the Bills selected Zay Jones 37th overall in the 2017 NFL Draft, they no doubt believed his unmatched college production (399 Receptions; 4,279 Yards; 23 TDs in 49 Games at ECU) meant he would more seamlessly transition into newly minted Offensive Coordinator Rick Dennison’s aggressively horizontal passing attack than his draft counterparts.

Through four games though, Jones has accumulated a meager 4 catches for 57 yards and no scores on 17 targets. Not exactly a stellar start for the rookie. The inability of Taylor and Jones to connect on a number of big plays this season (most notably on 4th down in Carolina) has more than couple fans wondering if Jones could be suffering from the dreaded yips. Read on for a breakdown of Jones’ targets.

Jets : 4 Targets, 1 Reception

Zay Jones’ first career reception was a nice one. Running a crisp skinny post pattern, Jones caught and turned up field for a smooth 20-yard gain. The other three “targets” were throwaways with Jones in the area.

Panthers: 6 Targets, 2 Receptions

Target 1: A nice breakup by Daryl Worley, this would’ve been a tough catch.

Target 2:  After being targeted on the Bills first drive, Jones isn’t targeted again until 4:08 remaining in the 3rd quarter. Like the 4th down play, it looks like there’s fault on both sides here. Taylor puts it a little wide of Jones, possibly to avoid the arms of Luke Kuechly, who had dropped back in coverage at the last second. Even still, Jones got his left hand on it, and appeared to be in the process of hauling it in when a hit from James Bradberry knocked it loose, preventing what might have been a big play. Not to let Jones completely off the hook, but it’s important to point out this wasn’t a straight-up drop.

Targets 3-5: 4 of Jones’ 6 targets came with 2:10 or less in the 4th Quarter, with the Bills driving to win the game. A pressure situation for any player, let alone a rookie playing in his first game on the road. After making a couple catches to help the Bills move down to midfield (including grabbing a high throw and still managing to get out of bounds), Taylor saw Jones in single coverage and threw a prayer that Jones had no chance of bringing in. And of course, we all know how this one ends.

Catch Heard ‘Round WNY: This play has already been analyzed to death so I won’t belabor the point here. There was likely a little fault on both sides, and it’s worth noting that without Jones’ catches earlier in the drive, the Bills aren’t a position to win at the last second. It looks like Taylor put the ball over the wrong shoulder, but remember that he’s trying to make a throw to the corner/goal line from 40 yards out, and only misses by a couple inches. Jones, for his part, looks great coming off the line, and makes a nifty juke to get open, but seems to stumble slightly coming out of it, which compromises his ability to track the ball and adjust to make the catch. The degree of difficulty was high, but this certainly has to feel like the one that got away, given the Bills 3-1 start.

Bronco: 3 Targets, 0 Receptions

Target 1: This was the one that ricochet’d off Jones’ hands only to be plucked out of the air by Andre Holmes. Jones does a great job of getting open, and Tyrod put it where only he could get it. This absolutely has to be a catch, no ifs, ands, or buts. On the plus side, Jones’ body language shows he was excited about the score, and not dwelling on the drop. With any luck, he starts making those plays for himself soon enough.

Target 2: Tyrod under pressure on a bootleg, no shot.

Target 3: Jones runs a nice slant but can’t handle the pass from Taylor, which was slightly up and away from him. Again, this looks more like a QB and his rookie receiver struggling to get on get on the same than a case of the tips for Jones.

Falcons: 5 Targets, 1 Reception

Target 1: TT out of bounds, no shot.

Target 2: TT misses a wide-open Jones on a bootleg. Jones didn’t even get the chance to drop this one, a pure miss by Tyrod.

Target 3: Jones gets separation on a slant, but corner Desmond Trufant does an excellent job of closing the gap and making a play on the ball. Not much Jones can do.

Target 4: This was the long drop on 3rd and 7.  This is also where I begin to fear that typical struggles for a first year receiver could metastasize into a larger mental/confidence problem. Given Jones’ production in college and his self-assured comments about his hands in the offseason, I’m sure he feels a lot of pressure to perform. And sure, the degree of difficulty is pretty high here as well, with Damontae Kazee bearing down on Jones as the ball comes in, but Tyrod threw a dime, and it should have been caught. This drop stalled a Bills drive and allowed the Falcons a drive that ended in go-ahead touchdown.

Target 5: Jones redeemed himself a bit here, doing a nice job of coming back toward the bootlegging Taylor for an 18 yard gain on the drive that put the Bills up 17-10.

Despite hauling in just 23.5% of his targets thus far, I’m hesitant to say Jones has the yips. After all, only 7 or 8 of those targets were truly catchable. That doesn’t mean the Bills coaches shouldn’t work to get Jones more comfortable in the offense, though. If I’m Rick Dennison, I’m trying to find a way to get the ball to Jones on screens and quick routes early. His volume and production at ECU suggests he’s the kind of guy who plays better if he can get into the flow of the game early on. If they can establish him early, he may just get loose and start to make some of the higher difficulty catches. Jones’ pedestrian stat line through four games is certainly cause for concern, but let’s give he and Taylor a little more time to get on the same page before declaring the kid a head case. If Jones and Taylor can’t establish a connection over the next few weeks, however, we may have to revisit the issue.