Reception Perception: Zay Jones is This Year’s Most Confusing WR Prospect

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Back in Cooper Kupp’s Reception Perception evaluation, we discussed the process of the NFL Draft season. At that time, the massive hype machine generated by the Eastern Washington receiver’s Senior Bowl week had hit an impasse with a poor combine performance. This served as a reminder that there are multiple boxes to check off in the pre-draft process.

Another receiver also appeared to get the same propping up from a strong Senior Bowl week. Yet, unlike his counterpart, Zay Jones took a large sharpie and checked off the NFL Scouting Combine box.

The massively productive Jones absorbed 158 receptions and posted 1,746 yards as a senior at East Carolina in 2016. That capped a four-year collegiate career where Jones nearly cracked 400 catches, went over 4,200 yards and scored 23 touchdowns.

Yet, some of the detailed notes in his production profile left questions to be answered. A 10.7 career yards per reception and a 5.8 touchdowns-per-year average rightly caused some to wonder if Jones’ proper NFL casting was that of an ancillary slot or flanker/interior hybrid receiver.

Jones proceeded to cast more confusion on his projection with a sterling performance at the NFL Scouting Combine, displaying a wealth of measurable athletic ability. Measuring in at 6-foot-2 and 201 pounds, Jones tested in the 65th percentile in the vertical and the 73rd percentile or better in the broad jump, three-cone drill and both shuttles while popping off a 4.45 in the 40-yard dash, per Mockdraftable. Overall, his SPARQ score for athletic testing was in the 94th percentile among NFL wide receivers, per 3 Sigma Athlete.

In just about every way, Zay Jones has crushed the pre-draft process, provided teams are also pleased with his performance in private interview sessions. Those results require us to return to the product offered by his college game film with a fine-toothed comb to see if any further contextualization must take place when deciphering his NFL prospects. We’ll turn to Reception Perception to glean those answers.

Alignment and Target Data

Games sampled: Connecticut, N.C. State, Virginia Tech, South Carolina, Tulsa, Temple

As the hyper-productive clear top receiver for the East Carolina Pirates, Zay Jones moved all around the formation in the six games sampled for his Reception Perception evaluation. While some might project him as an interior receiver at the next level, he spent 29.6 percent of his snaps in the slot. The others were a mix of right (36.6 percent) and left (33.3 percent) outside receiver. Jones also split time lining up on the line of scrimmage and off it, with just over a 60-40 difference.

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Given his lofty production numbers, it’s no surprise Jones boasts some of the beefier target data metrics in the 2017 class. A target went Jones’ way on 42 percent of the 269 routes run over his Reception Perception sample. Not only was that rate nearly 10 percentage points higher than the two-year prospect average, but Jones ran more routes than any other receiver charted this year and a full 47 more than the second-place finisher.

Many of Jones’ catches came on designed plays and manufactured touches, yet, it’s clear that his reliability was a big factor in making that a staple of the game plan. Only Ishmael Zamora finished with a higher percentage of routes with a catch figure than Zay Jones’ 29 percent, and his rates are skewed because of the design of Baylor’s offense. Speaking to his reliable nature, Jones posted a drop rate of just 2.7, bested only by Cooper Kupp and Chris Godwin, players recently covered in Reception Perception.

Success Rate vs. Coverage

While most every piece thus far explored of Zay Jones’ Reception Perception evaluation has fallen in line with expectations given his raw profile, here is where things get tricky. The results of Jones’ success rate vs. coverage (which measures how often a receiver gets open on each route run) is the main metric in which you start to wonder if he’s somewhat “painted into a corner” as a prospect.

On 95 attempts vs. man coverage, Jones posted a 66.3 percent success rate. That falls right within a percentage point the two-year prospect average. While that in and of itself is not a major damnation, when paired with a 51 percent success rate vs. 49 press coverage attempts, concerns begin to mount. Jones’ success rate vs. press coverage checks in just above the 23rd percentile among prospects charted the last two years.

With just an average score against man coverage and a bottom-quarter success rate when pressed, we have to wonder if Jones projects as an effective outside receiver at the NFL level. An inability to win off the line of scrimmage in duels with boundary cornerbacks is essentially a death sentence for wide receivers. To further complicate matters, his contested catch conversion rate of 54.5 checked in below the two-year average and in the 30th percentile. As such, Jones’ best role may be as an interior receiver in the NFL.

Should Jones need to move to a primary slot position, he has already demonstrated the ability to win against the forms of defense he’d see there. On 171 attempts against zone coverage, what he clearly saw more of, Jones came away with an 81.9 percent success rate. He scored out just above the 82nd percentile in Reception Perception.

It’s encouraging to see Jones already has an understanding of how to sift through zone coverages as most of his NFL assignments should take him to the middle of the field. Some of the metrics in his route data cast more evidence that may indeed be his best home.

Route Data

We’re already struggling to find encouraging evidence of Zay Jones’ ability to translate to a productive role as an outside NFL wide receiver. Given his athletic test results at the scouting combine, that’s rather surprising. And yet, his route data only seems to heighten the degree of those struggles.

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Red is below the two-year prospect average, green is above and yellow is within the average.

Without question, compared to the average college prospect charted for Reception Perception, Zay Jones was primarily used as a short area receiver on in-breaking routes. The only three routes that Jones ran on a rate above the two-year prospect average were the screen, curl and dig. His 18.6 route percentage for the slant was right within that average. Vertical routes like the post and nine, along with every single out-breaking pattern, checked with a route percentage below the average.

The fact that 64.3 percent of Jones’ charted routes came one on just four patterns, all of which typically come with a low average depth of target, helps much-needed context to his route success rate chart.

It’s encouraging to find that Jones posted strong success rate vs. coverage score on the four routes he almost exclusively ran at East Carolina. His proficiency at earning separation on slants, digs and curls made him a strong and, again, reliable short to intermediate target for the team’s quarterbacks. Jones does show an ability to bring agility to his slant route and shift to the middle of the field at the proper depth. On the curl routes, he knows when to break off the pattern and snap back to the quarterback.

The trouble for Jones comes after the ball arrives. Obviously, with his usage in college, Jones was “in space” on a well-above-average number of his routes at 17.1 percent. Only Dede Westbrook found himself with more opportunities to break a tackle after the catch among prospects charted this year. However, Jones rarely did much damage on those opportunities, going down on first contact on 54.3 percent of his in space attempts. That rate was above the two-year prospect average, and Jones did not check in with a plus score in the single or multiple broken tackle metric.

Moving Forward

Even if he finds a home as a possession-flanker/slot receiver hybrid in the NFL, Jones doesn’t offer much upside as a player in space. Along with his utilization, this was likely a big culprit in his low yards per reception total as a collegian.

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We needed to see more from Jones in space, as his route success rate chart doesn’t lend much credence to the idea he has some untapped upside as an outside or downfield threat. His out-breaking route percentages were simply too low to glean much from positive success rates on corners or comebacks. Even when Jones did run nine routes, we see he failed to create much vertical separation with a below-average 43.2 percent success rate vs. coverage.

When viewed in conjunction with his 23rd percentile success rate vs. press coverage, Jones’ route data seems to slam the door shut on a projection for an outside receiver in the NFL. An inability to win consistently off the line, in contested situations or on downfield routes spells doom for a primary pass-catcher.

Yet, this is all painfully difficult to reconcile with a prospect who tested outrageously well as an athlete at the NFL Scouting Combine. That measured athleticism is real; you cannot just write those numbers off. Right along with it, the way he’s destroyed the stat sheet in college along with every other step of the pre-draft process is real. Then again, his Reception Perception brings needed context and a clear pause that needs to occur in the projecting process.

Perhaps Zay Jones is just a better tester for a job interview than he actually is in the field. On the other hand, maybe there truly are untapped physical gifts that he just never showed on tape at the collegiate level. Either way, while I like this player overall, one thing is clear: Zay Jones is the most confusing wide receiver prospect in the 2017 NFL Draft.

A best-case NFL scenario given Zay Jones’ build and college usage would be to end up as a Keenan Allen-type player. However, during Allen’s peak but injury-shortened 2015 season, he posted a 77.1 percent success rate vs. man coverage, a top-five score in series’ history, and a sterling 79.6 percent success rate vs. press coverage. Again, that’s a best case scenario and an unlikely outcome based on Jones’ college Reception Perception.

The safest bet appears to be that Jones settles into a high-volume but low-ceiling slot and flanker hybrid role when he hits the next level. Yes, he can win on those short to intermediate routes while sifting through zone coverage, and there is certainly value in a player like that, but Reception Perception gave us plenty of reason to question what is available beyond that.

If you’re interested in more Reception Perception analysis, make sure to visit our Reception Perception pages for college prospect evaluations and pre-order The Ultimate Draft Kit for access to 50 NFL players’ full data this summer. You can keep up with all of the work using the #ReceptionPerception hashtag on Twitter.

Editor’s Note: Get full Reception Perception data and written evaluations by Matt Harmon on top 50 wide receivers for the 2017 NFL season in the 2017 Ultimate Draft Kit

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