Analysis: Zay Jones won’t be a wonder for the Raiders this season

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Wade Vandervort

Las Vegas Raiders wide receiver Zay Jones (7) takes off his helmet after running in the overtime winning game of an NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens at Allegiant Stadium on Monday, September 13, 2021.

Las Vegas Raiders wide receiver Zay Jones scored one of the most memorable touchdowns of last year’s very first game at Allegiant Stadium – mostly because of his hand sanitizer celebration that followed – and then went on to practically disappeared the rest of the season.

It might be tempting to think history will repeat itself this year after the veteran backup scored the overtime winner against Baltimore in front of the first live crowd in Allegiant Stadium history on Monday night. Do not subscribe to this theory.

The Raiders coaching staff want to avoid neglecting Jones in his third year with the Raiders and focus on keeping him more involved in the offense throughout the season.

“I have to put him on the pitch more,” coach Jon Gruden said earlier this week. “It’s a competitive group of receivers. He is an energetic force for us. He finishes everything.

Jones played 20 snaps against the Ravens, the second-smallest among Raiders receivers, and actually saw a slight drop in playing time in percentage (from 26.69% of games last year to 23.26% during week 1 this year). He made the most of those opportunities, capturing a pair of passes for 46 yards, but also running clean runs and securing a solid block.

He was the team’s highest-ranked receiver by Pro Football Focus in Week 1 and caught the attention of coaches – something he has been doing throughout the offseason. The teammates have raved about Jones’ dedication since the end of last season and were thrilled when it paid off against the Ravens.

Most of the players made available to the media after the win went out of their way to congratulate Jones, including quarterback Derek Carr, who hit Jones perfectly in stride with the decisive deep ball.

“I couldn’t be happier,” Carr said. “If I had to pick someone (to catch the pass), I would probably pick Zay. Please let Zay catch the winner of the match because he does so much for us.

For the second consecutive offseason, Carr hosted pitching sessions with her receivers in city parks before the team began operations this summer. Jones hasn’t missed any.

Even when Carr asked to pitch at 6 a.m. – he said to test his teammates’ resolve – Jones showed up.

“When I needed him the most, he was there for me,” Carr said. “It doesn’t matter if he caught that ball or even if he took that route, he’s my family. But the fact that he did, I just celebrated it. I can celebrate his success. had a hard time in Buffalo, and he found a home here.

Jones still holds the Football Bowl Subdivision record for most career receptions (399) since his time at East Carolina. His rich college career was part of the reason the Bills used a second-round pick against him in the 2017 NFL Draft.

He started off promisingly at Buffalo, racking up just under 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns in his first season, but eventually fell out of favor. The Bills traded him to the Raiders midway through the 2019 season, and his tenure with the Silver and Black was just as disappointing – at least on the surface.

Jones had only 14 catches for 301 receiving yards and one touchdown in his first two seasons with the Raiders, but he was quietly making his mark behind the scenes. He felt so confident in his place on the team that he bought a house in Las Vegas before the Raiders finished their move.

Even with a year left on my contract, I said to my parents, ‘I’m moving to Las Vegas, “Jones said during training camp.” They were like,’ are you sure? ‘ was like, ‘Yeah, I wanna do that. It’s something that I feel like I have to do.

Jones became a free agent this offseason, but never seriously considered signing elsewhere. He accepted a one-year contract to return to Las Vegas.

“I really wanted to put down roots and really establish myself and be a part of this team, and really to prove that I belong here and that I can do something useful for this football team,” he said. . “It was my state of mind. It was not about trying to look for money elsewhere. It was really about wanting to finish something that I had started on my journey.

With the Raiders bringing in veteran free agents John Brown and Willie Snead in the offseason, some saw Jones as a good choice to make the squad. Not those closest to him, however.

Gruden has notoriously warned not to sleep on Jones on the opening day of training camp, and the receiver has become arguably the most productive wide receiver in the roster this summer. Brown ended up being a surprise outing with Jones earning a spot on the list.

“He lives in the neighborhood directly across from my house so (I spent) a lot of time with him over the summer and I talked to him about life, the ups and downs,” said the tight end. Darren Waller. “Seeing him go out and get there is like seeing your brother go out and do something crazy.”

After slow starts against the Ravens, Raiders starting receivers Henry Ruggs and Bryan Edwards erupted late in the game. Waller and wide receiver Hunter Renfrow, meanwhile, are secure in their positions as two of the team’s main targets, but Gruden believes there are enough passes to expand Jones’ role.

Everyone with the Raiders sees the winner of the game against the Ravens as the start of a big season for Jones, not the peak that last year’s first success turned out to be.

“You can talk to any attacking player in the locker room and there is a lot of love for that player,” said offensive coordinator Greg Olson. “He’s also a great player. So, in our opinion, we are fortunate to have the depth that we have.

Case Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.



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