“I believe I have the best hands in this draft class,” Zay Jones said on the phone a few weeks ago. “I’m very confident in saying that, and statistically, I can back it up.”
The statistics say Jones is one of the most prolific receivers ever. His 399 career receptions at East Carolina are an FBS record, breaking the mark held by fellow Pirate Justin Hardy. His 158 as a senior are the same for a single season.
Jones played in national anonymity for most of his college career. He was a low three-star recruit out of Austin, Texas, in 2013. He played on 10-3 and 8-5 teams in his first two years, when he was a productive target on squads that played in the Beef O’Brady’s and Birmingham Bowls.
ECU went 8-16 in his junior and senior years, with a coaching change between them. Jones had his chances to be noticed — scouts are thorough — but he didn’t feel he got the level of attention players at power-conference schools did.
“I believe probably not as much as other guys get from schools such as Alabama and LSU — respectfully to those schools, not throwing any shots at them, well-deserved — but I don’t think as much attention was brought to what I was doing, as far as an individual player,” he said. “I know we struggled as a team. Of course, with a non-winning season and you’re getting blown out some games, no one’s really paying attention to the numbers that you’re putting up, but I believe if you truly watch the film, I’m playing 90 to 99 snaps a game, and I’m consistently producing.”
The 6’2, 201-pound Jones had a good NFL Combine, where he showed how his body had developed. His 4.45-second, 40-yard dash was 0.63 seconds faster than his 247Sports-verified 40-time from high school. His vertical jump was nine inches higher. He was top-five among all WRs in the broad jump and both shuttle drills.
That growth aligns with Jones’ change in role over his four years at ECU: 62 catches as a freshman, then 81, then 98, then 158, with similar spikes in his yardage totals.
“I think part of the reason why I wasn’t as highly recruited is because I was a late bloomer as far as just my physique, my speed, my playmaking ability,” Jones said. “I’ve always been a dedicated, hard worker, but as you know, the nice guys always don’t finish first. So, I mean, that’s just who I was. I grew into my body, and I really just developed in every aspect of my game, and it’s really shown.”
“Jones starred at the Senior Bowl and carried that over to the combine,” Dan Kadar wrote. “In passing drills, Jones looked like what you’d expect from a player who caught 158 passes last season. He may have secured a spot as being the draft’s fourth-best wide receiver.”
One knock on Jones is that he got his numbers against non-power competition.
True, but Jones was good against everybody.
Jones played his freshman season in Conference USA and his last three in the AAC, the clear top mid-major league. It’s harder to get yardage in the SEC than the AAC, but Jones had chances to demonstrate that he could thrive against anyone.
- 22 catches for 190 yards against South Carolina, 2016.
- 14 catches for 135 yards and a touchdown against Florida, 2015.
- 10 catches for 115 yards against Virginia Tech, 2016.
- Eight catches for 116 yards and a touchdown against North Carolina, 2014.
Jones averaged 13 catches and 126 yards in his three games against Power 5 opponents as a senior. As a sophomore and junior, he posted more yards per game against those teams than everyone else.
“I don’t know why I get the stipulation of, ‘I haven’t played against great competition,’ because I really feel like I have, in a sense,” he said.
A fairer critique of Jones’ numbers is that, as a senior, he played in head coach Scottie Montgomery’s pass-oriented spread system. Pirate quarterbacks targeted him an incredible 221 times, 47 more than anyone else in the country last year. But his 71.5 percent catch rate is quite good for someone targeted that often. It was also Jones’ first year as an outside receiver after spending his first three mostly in the slot.
“I’m really proud of those numbers that I was able to get,” he said. “I’m a great vertical threat. I’m just a playmaker. I’m versatile; I’ve played in many, multiple positions. I would say the improvements that I need is those one-on-one battles in that press coverage, because it was my first year playing that X position outside.”
Jones comes from an accomplished football family.
His uncle is Jeff Blake, who made 100 starts as an NFL quarterback between 1994 and 2003 and made the Pro Bowl in 1995.
His older brother Cayleb is on the Vikings’ reserves/future roster.
His younger brother Levi is a four-star who just signed with USC via an enjoyable T-shirt fake-out that spurned Florida and Florida State.
Zay Jones was so lightly recruited that he heard complaints that ECU had only offered him a scholarship because of his family name.
“For a lot of my college career, people just said I got my opportunity because my dad went to East Carolina because he was a football player, not really based off what I did as a player throughout high school,” he said.
Jones said he used it as motivation. And there are other benefits.
“The positive side of that, having an NFL dad who’s been through everything that you’re about to go through, who’s went to an NFL training camp, who’s went to the playoffs, who’s won Super Bowls, who’s played with and against some of the best receivers, including Jerry Rice,” Jones said, “the knowledge I have at my disposal is truly unlimited.”