Sometimes a player's production in college is not just good, it is eye popping. Zay Jones' record breaking 158 reception, 1748 yard season is incredibly notable on its own. However, it is even more spectacular when you take into account that he was the offense at ECU. He had the second most touches on the team, 19 behind the team's leading running back, but he had the most yards from scrimmage on the team by far. His receiving totals were more than the entire team rushing total and twice as much as the second leading receiver. He accounted for 44% of ECU's receptions, second best figure in the class and 43.5% of their receiving yards, highest in the class. It was clear that Zay Jones was the best player on the ECU offense by far and they wanted to get him the ball any way they could.
Jones' biggest function at ECU was acting as an extension of the running game. Screen passes, short crossers and shallow drags made up the majority of Jones' targets and were a big reason he had the lowest yards per reception of any top receiver in the class (11.1). ECU just needed to get consistent yardage and found that it was easier to just get Jones those short passes to develop that dynamic on offense than running the ball. So the reality is that Jones was forced a lot of touches, inflating his production in terms of what he created for himself, but that is not a huge indictment. After all, ECU saw him, rightfully, as their best player and wanted to get him the ball any way they could. Hard to knock him for that. However, it does create a lot of throwaway plays in the evaluation where catches a screen pass fives a game that he just gets three yards on.
Sifting through all the forced touches, however, and there are some things to like about Zay Jones.
You don't get thrown at as much as Zay Jones without having dependable hands and ability to make plays with the ball in the air. There are a lot of things to take away about this play: Jones' lack of speed is pretty evident and he does a poor job releasing off the line, but you cannot deny the skill he exhibits at the catch point.
This is actually a different play despite the identical circumstances. Jones does not necessarily "win" the route, but his ball sills and physicality at the catch point made the play despite massive pass interference.
What is immediately obvious from these plays is that Jones' speed is underwhelming, but his hands are anything but. Luckily, Jones was moved into the slot quite a bit where he did his best work.
Jones' dependable hands means these uncontested catches are "gimme" yards for him and he does a great job finding yards after the catch in a tight area.
While this play may seem ordinary, a lot of wide receivers are not comfortable making this catch with so many bodies around them. Jones is fearless in traffic and his toughness might be his best asset.
Jones is truly at his best in the slot singled up or against zone coverage. He does a good job securing the ball in space and finding tough yards after the catch.
Jones' biggest issue is that he is just not a dynamic or sudden athlete. Jones has made a lot of tough catches, but they needed to be tough catches because of how little he can separate on the outside or against more athletic cornerbacks. His constant inability to separate usually results in contested catches and it is hard to expect that he consistently comes down with these types of balls.
It is not just a lack of pure speed that is concerning, it is the lack of route running savvy to go along with it. Jones was not asked to run a diverse route tree and on top of that, he rarely shows any suddenness through the routes he does run. These are absolutely teachable things for a receiver, but it is concerning nonetheless.
Pro Comparison: Despite being an uninspiring athlete, it is hard to overlook Jones as a serious NFL prospect because of his hands. This dependability is reminiscent of Jason Avant in his prime years in Philadelphia. No one will ever accuse Avant of being a great athlete or even a great route runner, but he caught a lot of tough passes for the Eagles and Jones looks like a player who can do something similar for a team.
Just because Jones may not be a number one or two receiver in the NFL does not make him a bad prospect. His hands and physically will be an asset for NFL teams, especially in the middle of the field. God knows the Eagles would kill for a guy whose only plus trait is catching a damn football. Jones is ideally a slot receiver in the NFL. His toughness and dependability will create targets for him in an offense and if he goes to a good wide receiver coach and can improve his route running in the NFL, he will be even more effective.
It is worth noting that Jones was the best player on an incredibly bad offense and that hurt his efficiency quite a bit. He will be a lot more effective in a complementary role. What is that worth? Well, while I would not spend a pick on Jones in the first three rounds, he will be a valuable pick on day three who can contribute as a dependable role player in the NFL.