Fantasy Football: What Can We Expect From Zay Jones in 2018?

Zay Jones had a rough year in his rookie campaign. But is he in a position to bounce-back in his second go-around?

I recently got suckered into a debate with a co-worker about which of the band Toto’s big hits was truly the best song: “Africa,” “Rosanna,” or “Hold the Line.” We had a friendly discussion about 80s music, but when the co-worker asked others to weigh in on the discussion, they just laughed at the fact that we like Toto at all.

When something you’re a fan of becomes a punch line for others, it can be tough to stick to your beliefs and continue to defend it.

That’s why people who were sold on Buffalo Bills wide receiver Zay Jones as a rookie prospect have had a crisis of conscience in the 2018 offseason. Jones had a rocky first year in the league, plagued by drops and bad routes, and an even more tumultuous start to this offseason, but he still oozes potential and interesting traits.

Should fantasy players be frightened of the thing that Zay Jones has become, or should we hold the line?

Moonlit Wings

Jones emerged from East Carolina as a prized triple-threat as far as wide receiver prospects go. He was big and fast and had college production to show for it.

Valued as a mid-round flier early on in the draft process, Jones instantly became an early-round asset in the lead-up to draft day and was eventually selected at pick 37. Then, when the Bills allowed Robert Woods to walk in free agency and traded Sammy Watkins, Jones went from complementary piece to de facto starter on the outside.

But, as they say, the higher they rise, the harder they fall. Once the 2017 season got started, Jones’s trajectory rapidly took a turn.

Through Week 8, Jones saw 37 targets and caught just 10 of them (27.0 percent catch rate). And we can see just how much Jones’ “stone hands” hurt his team by using numberFire’s signature metric, Net Expected Points (NEP).

NEP is a metric that describes the contribution a play (or player) makes to their team’s chances of scoring. By adding down-and-distance value to the box score production, we can see just how much each play, and each team as a whole, influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

When we look at Jones’ Reception NEP per target from Week 1 to Week 8, things are pretty ugly. For the sake of context, the average wide receiver target in 2017 earned 0.65 Reception NEP. On his first 37 targets, Jones earned an average of 0.28 Reception NEP, less than half the value of the league average.

That production didn’t change a ton over the rest of the season, even when the Bills brought over Kelvin Benjamin to take additional pressure off of Jones to produce.

The table below shows Jones’ production by Reception NEP per target, catch rate, and Reception Success Rate (the percent of catches that created positive NEP value) for the entire 2017 season. I also compared Jones’ rates to other wide receivers with at least 70 targets in a season, both in 2017 alone and since 2000. These are ranked by percentile (99th is highest, 0th is lowest).

Zay Jones Rec NEP/Target Catch % Rec Success %
Rates 0.39 36.49% 96.30%
2017 Percentile 0th 0th 98th
Since 2000 Percentile 2nd 0th 97th

Rock bottom marks in Reception NEP per target and catch rate tells us two things: that Jones produced very little value when given the chance and that he rarely secured passes thrown his way. Yet, 97th-to-98th percentile marks in Reception Success Rate means that when Jones did get the ball in his hands, he was a productive and consistent contributor.

Long-Forgotten Words

Still, I don’t really accept the proposition this data presents.

There are many wide receivers who have had high-value-per-opportunity rates with low consistency -- a la Mike Wallace, Ted Ginn Jr., and Kenny Stills -- but just two since 2000 rated within the 10th percentile or lower in Reception NEP per target and in the 90th percentile or higher in Reception Success Rate: Jones and 2011 Devin Aromashodu. Statistically, it’s just something that rarely happens.

Sure, there were moments like the end of the Bills’ Week 2 contest with the Carolina Panthers -- where Jones dropped a game-winning touchdown in the waning seconds on 4th-and-long -- but that doesn’t account for an entire season’s worth of an odd profile like this.

In order to find the source of Jones’ analytical anomaly, I picked through Pro Football Focus' drop rate data. Instantly, things became clear.

The table below shows Jones’ percentile rankings in drop rate and percent of catchable targets among the 93 wide receivers to see at least 25 percent of their team’s targets in 2017.

Player Drop Rate Catchable %
Zay Jones 93rd 0th

We can’t excuse away the fact that Jones was among the top 10 percent of this year’s receivers in drop rate (5 drops total), but this brings to light just how bad the quarterback play was for Jones this year. Out of 74 total targets, just 32 were even possible to catch. Blame Jones all you want for the big-play drops, but something was off in the connection between Jones and his quarterback.

It wasn’t just Jones either. When looking at all Buffalo receivers, only 58.5 percent of their targets were catchable passes. Whether the cannon arm of Tyrod Taylor didn’t mesh with Jones’ profile or the general terribleness of Nathan Peterman dragged him down, Zay Jones was not nearly as bad in 2017 as the surface numbers appear.

As Sure As Kilimanjaro

So what does this mean for his fantasy value going forward?

After a rookie season in which Jones posted just 53.6 half-PPR fantasy points on 71 targets during the fantasy regular season (a meager 0.75 points per target, third-worst among the 109 receivers to top 30 targets), he has nowhere to go but up.

It appears that the Bills aren't too concerned about the scary offseason incident Jones went through last month, which is a good sign for the wideout's future with the team. Plus, the team is moving on from Jordan Matthews in free agency, which should open up some additional targets in the slot, a position Jones seemed naturally fit for.

It remains to be seen if it will result in a net-positive or -negative, but the Bills traded away Tyrod Taylor and have been in talks to move up from their 12th-overall draft pick to secure a quarterback that they like in the 2018 draft. Taylor and Peterman would have combined for the 25th-best Passing NEP per drop back among the 45 passers to drop back at least 100 times in 2017, as well as the 28th-best Passing Success Rate. There's clearly room for an early-round pick to come in and match (if not exceed) that standard of efficiency.

It’s been a tough go of it so far for Jones, but -- like the music of Toto -- he should only get better with more plays and time.