2017 NFL Draft Player Profiles: East Carolina WR Zay Jones

From now until the 2017 NFL Draft takes place, we hope to showcase as many prospects as possible and examine both their strengths and weaknesses. Most of these profiles will feature individuals that the Pittsburgh Steelers are likely to have an interest in, while a few others will be top-ranked players. If there is a player you would like us to analyze, let us know in the comments below.

Zay Jones/WR/East Carolina — 6’1”, 200 Lbs

The Good

-Technical route runner that is effective on boundary or in the slot
-Twitchy lower body that allows him to explode in and out of cuts
-Nose for the sticks
-A real chain-moving, possession receiver
-Wide catch radius with consistent hands
-Great feel for finding the soft spot in zones
-Durable receiver that had a heavy workload
-NFL bloodlines; son of former Cowboy Robert Jones and nephew of former NFL quarterback Jeff Blake

The Bad

-Soft blocker that doesn’t really like to mix it up
-Limited route tree largely due to scheme; tons of stops, speed outs and slants
-Not a serious RAC threat with ball in his hands
-Usually goes down on first contact
-Struggles to create separation on deep shots


-Owns FBS, American Athletic Conference and ECU career (399) and single-season (158) standards in receptions
-A Fred Biletnikoff Award, William V. Campbell Trophy and Senior CLASS Award Finalist in 2016
-Was also formally recognized as a Heisman Trophy candidate by the Heisman Trust … -Played all four receiving positions as a senior after starring at the “H” slot during first three campaigns
-Played in 50 games with 41 starts, averaging 8.0 receptions and 85.6 reception yards per contest
-Broke FBS career record with 19-yard reception at home vs. Navy on Nov. 19, 2016, surpassing former teammate Justin Hardy’s (2011-14) mark of 387
-Set FBS single-season standard with a two-yard catch at Temple a week later on Nov. 26, eclipsing the previous mark of 151 by Bowling Green’s Freddie Barnes (2009)
-Stands 12th on the all-time NCAA (FBS) receiving yards list with 4,279 yards

Tape Breakdown

East Carolina receiver Zay Jones is a ton of fun to watch on tape. In my three years of watching draft prospects and breaking them down in articles, I’ve never had the chance to watch a receiver of Jones’ caliber while also seeing him get a ton of work each game.

As the FBS career leader in receptions (399), there’s plenty of tape available on Jones with the ball in his hands, which fits perfectly into what exactly we’re trying to accomplish here, which is getting a complete feel for a player on tape.

With Jones, he’s a workhorse receiver that has a knack for getting open and making big plays for the Pirates over the last four seasons.

The first thing that jumps off the tape with Jones is his great route running ability. More often than not, receivers coming out of spread offenses are poor route runners, but not Jones.

He has a great feel for the position and knows how to find the soft spot in defenses. But it’s his technical route runner that frees him up on a consistent basis.

Coming out of the slot, Jones has current Atlanta Falcon defensive back Brian Poole on him. By getting up the field quickly, Jones pressures Poole to get into his backpedal.

From there, great footwork and a good head fake by Jones causes Poole to stumble and fall down, leaving Jones wide open in the middle of the field for an easy touchdown.

In the East Carolina offense, Jones ran a lot of simple routes, such as the speed out. It might not look difficult on paper, but if you round off your routes on speed outs it can give the defensive back a chance to jump the route.

With Jones, he rarely rounds off routes, and in the clip above you see the quick transfer of weight from his inside foot at the top of his steam back to the outside, giving him the quick burst needed to get to the sideline.

Once there, he makes a tremendous catch, showing off his great hands and solid body control to make the toe-drag catch just short of the sticks.

A big thing with non Power 5 guys is the question about their level of competition, but when playing Power 5 schools throughout his ECU career, Jones always had big games.

Against South Carolina, Jones often saw press coverage, but his tremendous footwork off the line allowed him to routinely beat it, much like he did in the clip above.

Once he is able to beat the corner off the line, he’s able to work into the middle of the field and get open to make the play. This play alone sold me on him as a possession receiver that isn’t afraid to go across the middle and can make the tough catches to move the chains.

Through nine games of Jones’ tape, I counted just three drops. That’s a phenomenal number when you consider that he caught 158 passes last season for the Pirates.

Part of that has to do with his great catch radius despite being just 6-foot-1. His long arms and big hands allows him to snare the football out of the air.

The only issue I really have with Jones though is his limited production in the red zone for ECU. Despite being the No. 1 receiver in a pass-heavy offense, I saw just three touchdowns from Jones in those nine games, only one of which came in the red zone.

But man, was it a thing of beauty.

I love the ability to high point the football here after spinning at the top of his stem to get into the end zone. This play right here was what I was looking for from Jones in the red area.

He’s definitely a hands catcher, and those large hands 9-inch hands certainly swallow up the football here.

Overall, I’m really impressed with Jones as a complete receiver. I understand that most of his production came on the back of high-volume throws like screens, crossing routes and short, underneath stuff, but he has shown the ability to get open with great footwork, has strong hands to make difficult catches and is a durable weapon despite the heavy workload.

After an impressive combine (4.45 40, 36-inch vert), I can see Jones pushing his way into the top half of the second round.

Projection:  Early Day Two

Games watched:  at Florida (’15), vs. Temple (’15), vs. NC State (’16), at South Carolina (’16), at Virginia Tech (’16), at USF (’16), vs. Navy (’16), at Cincinnati (’16), vs. SMU (’16)

Previous 2017 NFL Draft Player Profiles
Deshaun WatsonHaason ReddickMarshon LattimoreCorey ClementTim Williams
Jourdan LewisTakkarist McKinleyBrad KaayaNathan PetermanO.J. Howard
Charles HarrisAlvin KamaraTyus BowserDavid NjokuDeMarcus Walker
Chidobe AwuzieDeShone KizerMarlon MackCameron SuttonZach Cunningham
Corey DavisCarl LawsonPatrick MahomesKareem HuntEvan Engram
Derek RiversRyan AndersonJoshua DobbsJordan LeggettSamaje Perine
Corn ElderBucky HodgesJames ConnerCooper KuppStanley Williams
Fred RossJamaal WilliamsGeorge KittleEjuan PriceChris Wormley
Jeremy McNicholsJoe MathisDerek BarnettAmba Etta-TawoGareon Conley
Taco Charlton Elijah McGuireRyan SwitzerTanoh KpassagnonTre’Davious White
Brian HillMatthew DayesDonnel PumphreyJosh ReynoldsNazair Jones
De’Veon SmithDavis WebbObi MelifonwuTJ WattJohn Ross
Jerod EvansVince BiegelJosh CarrawayJosh MaloneKevin King
Fadol BrownChris GodwinNate GerryJordan WillisStacy Coley

  • Boots

    Do you see him as more of a slot guy?

  • VinHuddle

    I can’t make my mind up on this player. Maybe it has to do with the offense ECU runs and that Justin Hardy, who put up stats while there, hasn’t exactly lit it up in the NFL..which I know isn’t fair to Zay. Guess I’m still on the fence but I’m leaning towards hoping he wouldn’t be the 2nd rd choice..just my 2¢ worth however.

  • Bill Sechrengost

    Thanks Josh. I’ve been waiting for this one. Since his YPC average was lower with all of his catches, it was hard to know whether he was just a short yardage type receiver or not. His 40 at the combine was definitely impressive, faster than what I thought. If he is still there in the second round, I could see them being interested, although he hasn’t visited with the Steelers, as far as I know.

  • Spencer Krick

    If he’s there in round 2, I’d be for taking him.

  • SFIC

    Finally! Thanks Josh! Zay is my 2nd favorite player in this draft, after Solomon Thomas. I know Thomas will be long gone at 30, but Zay will probably be there. I have no problem taking him with our first pick, just as I was delighted we took Le’Veon Bell in the 2nd, when most were infuriated and said we could have got him in the 3rd (wrong). I want Zay in the same way I wanted DeAndre Hopkins. Most graded Hopkins as a 2nd rounder, but I thought he was the best WR coming out. Trust me guys, Zae will be a beast, especially in the redzone. I would much rather draft a sure thing than take a chance on the edge rushers or DB’s that will probably be left for us.

  • TrappenWeisseGuy ;

    I really like this guy. He was great at the senior bowl, great hands. There’s a clip around somewhere where he made Des King look silly in the practices with a crazy double move.

  • PaeperCup

    I would love Zay Jones….fanspeak drafts had him available all the way in the 4th. I’m pretty sure he’ll be gone by then. If he’s not, that would be great value.

    I still wouldn’t mind picking him up earlier, but we just have other areas I’d like to use the first 3 rounds on. Considering how successful the team has been at developing mid-range WRs I wouldn’t fret if we didn’t take a WR until the second 3rd round pick.

  • Roger G

    You crack me up dude…! Have you ever met a draft prospect you didn’t like? You take everybody in almost any round. You should be the Browns GM what with all the picks they have. Lol

  • Darth Blount 47

    I CAN’T be the only one who sees quite a bit of Antonio Brown with this kid, right??

  • Spencer Krick

    Pretty much one of the thousands of reasons I’m not a GM, haha.

    I’ve met several draft prospects I don’t like, but I try to look on the bright side. I still don’t get why everyone is bonkers for Tyrus Bowser and I think Kupp is overrated, to name a couple.

  • LucasY59

    agree on keeping it positive (and most draftable players are NFL quality, so most should be guys you wouldnt mind having on the team)

    there are guys that are good fits and ones that arent,

    there are ones that fill needs and ones that would be luxury

    being hypercritical isnt much fun

    (BTW I really like Bowser (because of his versatility, not just his pass rush ability, which needs some work) and Kupp is a good player, I just dont think he is what the Steelers need/look for)

    *and there are only 32 real GMs vs the millions of experts (that GM from their couch)

  • Josh Carney

    I definitely do. He has a knack for getting open and really seems to move the chains on almost every catch.

  • Josh Carney

    Thanks for reading! I have Solomon Thomas coming later this week.

  • Josh Carney

    Maybe in the route running, but nowhere else.

  • Darth Blount 47

    Okay, let me count the ways…

    – Both productive receivers from relatively small schools.
    – Both have run almost identical forty numbers (Brown 4.47) (Jones 4.45) (Brown has since lowered his quite a bit)
    – Both have identical hand sizes of 9′ AND are known to use them well.
    – Both are approx. 200 pound WR’s.
    – Both are not known as run blockers
    – Both are yes, known for superior route running.
    – Both benched close to the same number (Brown 13) (Jones 15) (One would think Brown has improved his now as well)

    Those are just some of the ways that they are quite similar. I don’t know Zay yet like the back of my hand, so I can’t speak confidently about their games, or else there may be even more ways they are pretty close. I wasn’t calling them twins, just that he gives me quite a bit of Brown vibe.

  • Wil Masisak

    I wonder how you’d compare him to, say, Gollaway? I think Zay Jones is a really good WR prospect but so hyped right now that it costs you more draft pick value than the difference down in performance to some of the day 3 guys.

  • Josh Carney

    I can just tell you this: when watching Zay Jones I don’t see Antonio Brown.

  • Josh Carney

    I haven’t watched Gollaway. I think the hype is justified. Damn good player. I want to mock him to Steelers in R2 in my upcoming mock, but I know that they won’t take a receiver that high. Plenty of good ones available later on though for sure.

  • Wil Masisak

    Zay Jones was certainly stand out at the Senior Bowl– in the game he was ridiculous.

  • Darth Blount 47

    Guess that’s fair. Hard to see another mythic legend in all of these mere mortals. 🙂