East Carolina wide receiver Zay Jones (7) heads to the sideline against South Carolina defensive back Rashad Fenton (16) during a game Sept. 17, 2016, in Columbia, S.C., was happy to be taken by the Buffalo Bills in the second round of the NFL draft last week.
By Stephen Igoe
Special to the Times
The Buffalo Bills wouldn’t exactly be the ideal No. 1 landing spot for most prospects entering the NFL Draft, but to Zay Jones, it might be a match made in heaven.
The East Carolina record-breaking wide receiver went early in the second round and No. 37 overall in last week’s NFL Draft to the Bills after Buffalo traded up to get him.
That gave Jones the rare opportunity to reunite with his college position coach, former ECU receivers coach Phil McGeoghan, who took the same position with the Bills following last season.
Buffalo head coach Sean McDermott explained how much having McGeoghan in the building helped in their evaluation of the ECU star leading into the draft.
“It certainly helps,” McDermott told the Bills’ media after selecting Jones. “We talked last night about knowing these players and trying to check every box. Gosh, if having his ex-coach in the building didn’t help, I’d be lying to you. We feel good about being thorough with our research, and certainly having Coach McGeoghan in the building helped getting to know Zay with his skill set and what he can and can’t do on the field, and then off the field as well.”
Jones took off under McGeoghan’s tutelage at ECU in 2016. After primarily playing in the slot over his first three collegiate seasons, Jones was moved outside and all around the field last year. The result? An NCAA-record 158 catches in one season.
McDermott indicated Jones’ position flexibility is a big reason why they targeted him.
“You’re not just talking about a guy that can play one position,” McDermott said. “He does have position flex. That said, as a young player, we have to progress him at the right pace. So he’s going to come in and learn the system and go from there. I’m sure he’s already on the phone with Phil at this point.”
Jones addressed what McGeoghan means to him in a conference call with the Buffalo media shortly after being selected.
“Just a great mentor,” Jones said of McGeoghan. “Like a father figure, he reminds me a lot of my father. Just the way he teaches, the way that he commands the room I have a lot of respect for him. He likes to tell me that you can have fun and be cool, but at the end of the day, it’s business and he has to get his job done because he has a family to feed and I do too. It’s a great balance of friendship, love and respect.”
Pirates fans used to seeing Jones wear No. 7 in the purple and gold will have to familiarize themselves with a new number and color scheme now.
It was announced shortly following the NFL Draft that Jones will wear No. 11 in the Bills’ red, white and blue uniforms.
NFL wide receivers aren’t allowed to wear single-digit numbers, and quarterback Cardale Jones wears No. 7 for the Bills regardless.
Some notable Bills to wear No. 11 in the past include Drew Bledsoe, Rob Johnson, Scott Norwood and Roscoe Parrish.
EARLY PLAYING TIME?
Second-round selections in the NFL these days are expected to contribute right away, and the Bills will expect Jones to play a big role immediately.
Not exactly known for their prolific passing attack, the Bills wide receiver depth is relatively thin on paper. Former Clemson standout Sammy Watkins is the team’s No. 1 receiver, but injuries and inconsistency have plagued him over his first three years in Buffalo.
Behind Watkins, journeymen receivers Corey Brown and Andre Holmes were added this offseason, but their upside is limited. In an ideal world, Jones could be a starter and the No. 2 target in Buffalo for quarterback Tyrod Taylor from day 1.
Buffalo also declined this week to pick up Watkins’ fifth-year contract option for the 2018 season, meaning he will be a free agent next year. That means Jones could be the team’s top wide out by his second season if he progresses.
OPPS FOR OTHER PIRATES
Jones isn’t the only former Pirate getting a shot at the next level.
Former ECU standout running back James Summers (Arizona Cardinals), outside linebacker Dayon Pratt (Houston Texans) and defensive back DaShaun Amos (New York Giants) each signed undrafted free agent deals following the draft.
Summers, who played quarterback his junior season with ECU after transferring from Hinds Community College, transitioned to running back in 2016 and led the team with 869 yards rushing and seven touchdowns. He also caught 19 passes for 109 yards and a touchdown.
Pratt enjoyed a breakout senior season with 61 tackles and 7 1/2 tackles for loss.
Amos played cornerback and safety over his career with ECU. He notched 51 tackles in 2016 and tested well at the Pirates’ Pro Day in March.
Former ECU quarterback Philip Nelson also reportedly will attend a tryout at rookie minicamps with the Browns and Bengals, while punter Worth Gregory will travel to the Jaguars rookie camp in hopes of earning a contract.
Zeek Bigger, a linebacker who graduated following the 2015 season, will attend the Carolina Panthers rookie camp this weekend on a tryout basis.
Stephen Igoe is the publisher of the East Carolina 247Sports website Hoist The Colours. Check out more of his work at eastcarolina.247sports.com.