If one was to compare Zay Jones, the rookie, to Zay Jones, the second-year wideout, there is one glaring difference.
One of Jones’ teammates, who witnessed the receiver’s rookie year first-hand, then spent the first half of 2018 in Dallas, before re-joining the Bills last month, sees a Zay Jones who carries himself with a purpose.
“What jumped out at me the most when I got back was the look in his eye, the pep in his step, the confidence,” said fellow receiver Deonte Thompson. “From the time I walked back in the building a few weeks ago his confidence has made him a totally different dude. His confidence is at another level right now.”
The first Bills receiver with 50 receptions or more since 2016 and the team leader in catches, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns, Jones established himself as a steady and reliable option in Buffalo’s passing game despite a lot of change at the quarterback position.
“He gets better every day. He works his tail off,” said Josh Allen. “He comes into practice, he never takes a rep off, and it’s showing in games because he’s finding ways to get it done, creating more separation, it seems like, every game. When he’s got that type of attitude and work ethic, the chemistry just kind of becomes natural the more you throw to him.”
“I think in this offense, it’s given me more freedom to do what’s necessary to get open,” said Jones. “Coach Daboll has done a good job of giving me the freedom to move around and find zones. So I feel comfortable in this offense and I’ve been able to make a jump for many reasons.”
Jones’ rediscovered belief in himself coupled with an unrelenting drive to improve the nuances of his game, has made him Buffalo’s go-to guy in the passing game.
Is that how it’s supposed to look?
That was the question Zay Jones was asking himself in the midst of a trying rookie season fraught with added responsibility, added pressure and disappointing results.
Jones wasn’t wondering about how his own rookie season was playing out. His rhetorical question stemmed from the monster rookie season being put together by his friend and draft classmate, Tre’Davious White.
Buffalo’s top draft choice in 2017 played a major role in the outcome of four of Buffalo’s nine wins that season with key takeaways at critical moments.
The difference between his play and that of White’s affected him and his confidence.
“Tre’ hit the ground running very, very fast as a rookie,” Jones told buffalobills.com. “And it made me think to myself, ‘Is that how it’s supposed to be? Or is Tre’ just that special?’”
Jones fortunately came to realize it was the latter.
It didn’t keep him from fighting to keep up with his fellow rookie, knowing his role in Buffalo’s offense was supposed to be every bit as important as White’s on defense.
“Tre’ was the rabbit I was trying to catch,” he said.
Jones never pulled even with White in 2017, but if you come to understand all the forces that were working against him, one can understand why he struggled to measure up.
“The NFL was a bigger game than I anticipated in the beginning,” Jones admitted. “I realized it was different, but it took me a while to adjust. And through those adjustments I still had growing pains as most rookies have. I just felt my mistakes were more in the spotlight because I was in a high-profile position.
“It was hard for me because my maturity level at that point in time in handling criticism and everyone having an opinion about my game… I took it very personally.”
The struggles persisted in Week 7 when he suffered a torn labrum after taking a shot from a Raiders linebacker on an under route. With the receiving corps already shorthanded due to injury, Jones chose to play out the season with one arm rather than opt for surgery.
“The surgical repair that I had my junior year in college didn’t hold up and my labrum ripped again,” Jones explained. “My team needed me though. It would’ve been very easy for me to shut it down and just quit, but I felt like for everything the team had been going through especially in the receiver room, they needed me to play. It was a decision I made to keep going. It was difficult, and I paid a price for that the rest of the season when it came to blocking or trying to get open or even catch the football.”
From the start of his rookie year, Jones felt like he was treading water. All the added demands and setbacks that followed left him sinking deeper below a water line of expectations he had for himself. Treading with one arm only made it harder. He was drowning.
“I didn’t try to make any excuses for it. It was hard, but I wanted to do it,” he said. “I knew what I was getting into and it’s something I stuck with and I’m proud of myself that I did.”
It was until the offseason that Jones had a chance to remove himself from the unyielding NFL cycle and exhale.
“After the season had ended, the offseason happened and just getting to take a deep breath and step away from football itself really helped me to just see the broader picture,” he said. “It’s easy to tell yourself, ‘You’ll get it. You’ll improve.’ When you’re in it you can’t see all that.”
A TUMULTUOUS OFFSEASON
Though the offseason brought him peace away from the field, Jones had to undergo shoulder surgery in January. While he was relieved that surgery was successful, it was followed by a troubling off the field incident in March, and then another physical setback in the spring.
“I found out later that I needed surgery on my knee, which was heartbreaking for me,” said Jones. “It was another setback.”
Buffalo’s new rookie quarterback, new offensive coordinator and new offensive scheme would have to wait on Jones who would miss OTAs and minicamp.
“That was difficult for me. I wanted to be on the field,” he said. “For a lot of it I couldn’t even be with my team. I had to be in the training room while they were out at practice. That hurt me really bad because I felt like everyone was moving along. It was a mental battle for sure. I wanted to do more, but my body wasn’t ready.”
BUILDING THE MENTAL WITH THE PHYSICAL
The lessons from his rookie season armed Jones with the knowledge of what it would take for him to make up for lost time on the field. He mentally prepared himself to physically execute the scheme when he finally returned to the practice setting a week into training camp.
There was a much different demeanor to Jones’ game when he made his return in August. He wasn’t the engaging, resolutely positive personality the media had come to know from interviews in his rookie season. Jones was as serious as a heart attack. Before practice. During practice. After practice.
It was an approach that was necessary to make up for the time he had lost.
“I had been building myself up to become stronger mentally as my body was catching up,” Jones told buffalobills.com. “So there wasn’t a whole lot of concern personally going into training camp because my focus and my intensity and my instincts and my passion were going to take over. It was a true rebuilding stage.”
The intensity of Jones’ game bled into the preseason and regular season.
Though he was largely relying on the quarterback who was lining up on offense with him each week, Jones ran every route at top speed. He blocked as aggressively as he could and laid out for every pass that came his way.
The production wasn’t eye-popping, but it was consistent and reliable, despite the fact that everything going on at quarterback and with the offense as a whole wasn’t. His approach was quickly earning respect in his locker room, especially from those who had not seen him on a field prior to training camp.
For the teammates who were with him in 2017, the Jones they see now is one who is more in line with the player they believed him to be.
“I just think his confidence is high,” said White. “He’s more comfortable in the scheme. You can just tell by the way he comes to work. Last year he came to work every day hungry, but he would kind of second guess himself.
“We were very good friends and we would talk about everything, life and football. I kind of knew what he was going through last year with starting early with the drops and then it kind of creeped up in his head and he kind of second guessed his talent. Now he’s Zay Jones the FBS record holder and he’s comfortable and playing with that swagger again.”
As invigorated as Jones is about successfully redirecting his game and rebuilding his confidence, he is far from satisfied.
“Knowing that the hard work is leading to more production, I hope to work and continue with that trend,” said Jones. “It’s encouraging to see, but I’m going to continue to keep working and grinding and keep the same focus and level of intensity that I have and capitalize on more opportunities.”