If you’re a “sleeper” in the NFL Draft, once scouts discover your talent, you’ll never look back.
In the case of East Carolina receiver, Zay Jones, he was a prolific machine of production in four years at college. A total of 399 receptions (an NCAA career record), 4,279 yards, and 23 touchdown receptions over the course of his career speaks to the volume of the reliable playmaker he was, no matter the context of competition. Jones burst onto the scene last year - his senior season - transcending past all previous performances, with an explosive 158 receptions (an NCAA single-season record), 1,746 yards, and eight touchdowns.
And yet despite his lighting up whomever he lined up against, Jones’ name as a receiver in the 2017 class wasn’t as much of a buzzword as you’d think among evaluators following the conclusion of his amateur career.
That is until a breathtaking performance at this past January’s Senior Bowl. An All-Star game that might have put him out of the Chicago Bears’ reach in search for more playmakers on offense, or had him skyrocket up their own draft board in a potential investment on his talent.
It was in Mobile, Alabama, where many finally began to really notch in Jones as a future star in the NFL. It was there where he was clearly the best receiver across all three days of practice as well as the culminating Senior Bowl game.
In officially recorded statistics, the receiver finished with a solid-enough six receptions for 68 yards and a touchdown. If incorrect calls (no reviews on an un-reviewable boundary play) and or holding penalties didn’t exist, Jones’ two most impressive, acrobatic plays of the day would also have been logged as scores.
Even if the touchdowns didn’t technically count, don’t think general managers or scouts didn’t note Jones’ effort on either play or in his overall body of work through said weekend. It opened their eyes to his stellar four seasons at East Carolina in conjunction.
In actuality: it deservedly put him on the map.
Don’t think the Bears and their coaching staff didn’t notice Jones either, who coached the 22-year-old on the Senior Bowl North squad. Chicago offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains had nothing but rave reviews for the prospect.
"Those two have had a really impressive week," Loggains said during the NFL Network telecast of the game, of Jones and accompanied sleeper North wideout in Eastern Washington’s Cooper Kupp. "They're really football-smart guys and they've showed up all week. It wasn't a surprise to us that they've played the way they have."
After many saw what Jones did to prospective NFL players trying to upgrade their own stock, it’s kind of puzzling why he wasn’t receiving as much acclaim until late January. He checked off every box you want in a developing receiver before, so it seems like he only needed a bigger stage than East Carolina (an evaluating mistake) for organizations such as the Bears to see him shine.
The 6-foot-2, 201 pound, 2016 First-Team All-American receiver stands out in this class, especially because of his refined route running. Other guys like Clemson’s Mike Williams or Washington’s John Ross - who broke the combine record for the fastest 40-yard dash ever at 4.22 seconds - appear to be more athletic freaks. Neither have as much of a nuanced football acumen a receiver needs to get open that Jones does.
In addition to his stellar route running, Jones has terrific hands and never catches the ball into his body out of necessity. A classic “pluck” wideout with ease, he may possess the best hands in this entire draft. The kind of guy on the outside that’s simultaneously graceful as well as naturally gifted with beyond quality reflexes. This is a player in the mold of the Alshon Jeffery or the Buccaneers Mike Evans’ of the world, in that if you throw him up a jump ball, his timed jumps to high point it around defenders are unmatched. He’s always open.
So, not only does Jones get great separation with quality routes, he can also box you out - two designations that turn a good NFL receiver into a great one.
In East Carolina’s offense, Jones ran most everything you’d ask of a receiver in a route tree as a complete player and he possesses the wherewithal to go down the middle. Sometimes by choice with toughness. His versatility had him line up all over, where you can also use him in the slot or outside the hashmarks as you please.
As an added bonus, Jones is one of the top character guys in this draft as there are no red flags in his background or in his place as a man with impeccable work ethic and focus in a locker room.
The only questions here are are Jones’ play speed in an offense at East Carolina designed to get the ball quickly in his hands with plenty of short routes (part of why he had so many receptions). He might not be able to take the top off of a defense in that regard. His strength against press coverage isn’t necessarily the best as he’ll get locked down more often than you like because of a for-now thin frame and feet issues.
Know that he’s not the best player after the catch either, but that’s not too much of a concern for a possession receiver.
On the play speed, some of that question was mitigated with a 4.45 40-yard dash at the Combine. Make no mistake that Jones may eventually be able to stretch the field if you ask him. With his quality route-running, he’ll still have to work on his footwork as he gets to used to NFL coverages and play books, though. This is why it takes time for a lot of young receivers to grow up.
Otherwise, Jones is the total package for a young receiver, and in his mind, he never required any sort of boost from the Senior Bowl or from press clippings. His draft stock was going to rise as his previous standout play was going to speak for itself. He maintained as much to East Carolina reporter, Stephen Igoe, at his Pro Day on March 23rd.
“One of the things I live my life on is, ‘never needed hype.’ You get a lot of hype because you’re doing well, but where were the people when you were a redshirt or a walk-on, or when you were a fourth (receiver on the depth chart) going into camp at ECU? ... I’m glad they’re (national analysts) noticing my talent. But I know what I could do all my life. Great that I have it, but never needed hype.”
Jones knew he would get to this culminating point. He knew his constant self-constructive criticism would put him at the edge of an outstanding professional career. Everyone else only had to see it on display as he evolved into the monster he is today.
The only question now is: Does Jones warrant a selection from the Bears, who lost a relative cornerstone at wideout in Jeffery and who have injury question marks with 2015 first-round pick, Kevin White?
I wouldn’t put it out of the realm of possibility that Chicago drafts a receiver at some point in the 2017 Draft and Jones would fit the perfect model of players general manager Ryan Pace seeks. That of a hard worker and team guy. Currently, mock drafts generally have Jones landing from anywhere in the mid to late first round, or early in the second. If he does fall to Day 2, it’ll be difficult to imagine he lasts long before a team snatches him up.
That team could and might even should be the Bears if they’re sticking to a best player available philosophy. Though it’ll likely be predicated on who exactly Chicago selects at No. 3 overall on need. One could argue the Bears are much farther away on offense than defense when considering recent talent departures, and would stand to benefit with the addition of such an NFL-ready receiver, no matter the issues he needs to fine-tune, like Jones.
Know that no matter which team Jones ends up with, he “never needed the hype.” Any doubts about his abilities as a young college player or now, only push him to be great.
Bears position outlook: Wide receiver
Bears’ need: Moderate
Current depth chart: Cameron Meredith, Kevin White, Markus Wheaton, Kendall Wright, Joshua Bellamy, Deonte Thompson
The situation: With the departure of Jeffery to the Philadelphia Eagles in free agency, the Bears are left with a huge hole at their skill positions, barring an explosion from the third-year, injury-plagued White. The organization is confident the 24-year-old can pan out, but the question mark remains.
In this offense, it’s currently Meredith and everybody else. That’s a problem for new quarterback Mike Glennon or anyone under center.
Best available: Mike Williams, Clemson
The three-year starter in Williams is the best overall option at receiver in this class. He’ll likely be a top-10 to top-15 pick. An underrated wideout pool in general also has the mentioned speedy Ross who should blaze by NFL defensive backs, along with a physical specimen in Western Michigan’s Corey Davis. After that, sleeper targets like USC’s JuJu Smith-Schuster, Jones, and Kupp all pop up. Enough solid talent to be found in each round.
Something to keep an eye on:
How does Meredith operate as the clear No. 1 target in the Bears offense? He could see a significant rise in production with more targets but also needs to become more consistent as the primary weapon in Chicago’s attack. It’s now time for the “leap” for the third-year player. No pressure.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times and is an editor for Windy City Gridiron. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.