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Zay Jones, NCAA single-season receptions leader, gives Bills much-needed WR help

Historically, receivers as prolific as Jones have struggled in the NFL.

NCAA Football: Connecticut at East Carolina James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

The FBS’s top single-season reception leaders doesn’t boast many memorable names. There’s Jordan White, Troy Edwards, Manny Hazard, and Freddie Barnes. Between them, they have just seven seasons of NFL experience and zero Pro Bowl appearances.

Above them all stands Zay Jones. No player in college football has ever caught more passes in one year than the East Carolina product, who hauled in 158 receptions for the Pirates. Now, the Buffalo Bills are hoping the emerging wideout can break the trend of disappointing pro performances from prolific college receivers. Buffalo selected Jones with the 37th pick i the NFL Draft.

Jones improved every year through his NCAA career, but no one could have predicted his insane 2016. He averaged more than 13 receptions per game and accounted for 1,772 total yards -- or nearly 32 percent of his team’s total offense. Despite his presence the Pirates staggered to a 3-9 record last fall, defeating only Western Carolina, Connecticut, and, somehow, North Carolina State.

That tenure, where he regularly played opponents like UConn, Central Florida, and SMU each season, raises a pair of important questions about the talented wideout. Was his monumental performance in 2016 the product of empty stats? How he will adjust to the game’s highest level.

But Jones’ bonkers senior season wasn’t just notable for his performance against AAC foes. He also tore up Power 5 Conference competition as well. Here’s how he performed against some of the FBS’s top teams in his final three years with the Pirates.

Zay Jones vs. Power 5 Opponents (and BYU), 2014-2016

Year Opponent Receptions Yards Yards/Catch Touchdowns
Year Opponent Receptions Yards Yards/Catch Touchdowns
2014 South Carolina 8 46 5.75 0
2014 Virginia Tech 3 11 3.67 1
2014 North Carolina 8 116 14.50 1
2014 Florida 6 64 10.67 0
2015 Florida 14 135 9.64 1
2015 Virginia Tech 2 55 27.50 1
2015 BYU 10 95 9.50 1
2016 NC State 7 73 10.43 0
2016 South Carolina 22 190 8.64 0
2016 Virginia Tech 10 115 11.50 0
Totals 90 900 10 5

While his production was prolific, one thing that stands out is his relatively low yards per catch against top teams. The Pirates targeted him whenever they needed an offensive burst, which led to plenty of receiver screens, quick slants, and other targets near the line of scrimmage. And Jones lived up to his status as the team’s most reliable weapon -- his 71.5% catch rate was impressive, especially for a player who was a) targeted so much and b) often double- and triple-teamed as his offense’s only legitimate weapon.

His performance at the NFL Combine also suggests he can translate his NCAA skill to the next level. Jones ran a solid 4.45-second 40-yard dash, but really stood out in the agility drills. The 6’2 athlete ranked among the top wideouts in the broad jump and shuttle runs to put him squarely in first round consideration this spring.

The Bills will lighten his load in 2017, freeing him up to do more with less in the NFL. He’ll join a receiving corps that includes Sammy Watkins.