ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) — Zay Jones can reflect on the past 18 months and see how much he’s matured as a player and a person.
Looking back, the Bills’ second-year receiver realizes how ill-prepared he was entering the NFL as a second-round draft pick in 2017. Jones had the wild idea then in believing his success at East Carolina, where he set NCAA records for career and single-season receptions, would immediately translate at the professional level.
“You have to understand that things just don’t happen like that,” Jones said, snapping his fingers for emphasis.
“Things take time,” he added. “For me as a man, just understanding this league, how it goes and finally letting the dust settle with everything, I’ve learned a lot.”
It’s a hard-earned perspective gained from his season-long struggles as a rookie, followed by a frightening meltdown during which a bloodied and naked Jones was arrested — but not charged — after trashing a downtown Los Angeles apartment in February.
Jones, who still has scars on his right knee from the outburst, wouldn’t change a thing if he could.
“It hurts sometimes because there’s growth pains,” he said. “You don’t understand what the NFL requires until you’re in it. And hopefully, for some guys it’s not too late.”
It wasn’t too late for Jones, who is beginning to show signs of emerging as a dependable receiver on a young and patchwork offense expected to have rookie Josh Allen back under center Sunday, when Buffalo (3-7) hosts Jacksonville (3-7).
Jones entered the bye week coming off a career-best outing. He had eight catches for 93 yards and a touchdown in a 41-10 win over the New York Jets on Nov. 11, with Matt Barkley starting for Buffalo. Jones now leads Buffalo with 37 catches for 392 yards and two TDs receiving. He’s already passed last year’s totals in catches (27) and yards (316) while matching his scoring output.
“I’m proud of myself, I wouldn’t lie to you,” Jones said. “It was nice to just sit back during the bye week and recognize the things that I’ve done, but also know there’s still a long ways ahead.”
It’s a far better place than where Jones was a year ago, when he was being criticized for dropping too many passes and not being on the same page with quarterback Tyrod Taylor. The most memorable incompletion came in the final seconds of a 9-3 loss at Carolina in Week 2, when Jones failed to bring down a pass near the goal line.
That’s not the type of production anyone, including Jones, was expecting from a player who finished his college career with 399 catches, including 158 in his senior season.
In Jones’ defense, he spent a portion of last season playing with a shoulder injury. It was also unfair to expect Jones to stand out amid a group of receivers mostly made up of rookies and journeymen.
Jones was disappointed by his lack of production and stung by the criticism.
“If people want to place the blame on me last year, sure I’ll take it,” he said. “But it’s helped me grow as a man. It’s helped me grow as a football player. I’ve matured.”
How much Jones matured wasn’t immediately apparent in February, when security video showed him arguing with his brother before being arrested for vandalism. It didn’t help that Jones required surgery to repair a knee injury, which sidelined him through the second week of training camp in August.
Jones won’t go into detail, except to say what happened in Los Angeles could have cost him his life.
He will acknowledge having made mistakes.
“I’m a professional in what I do. And I take that criticism,” Jones said. “Is a lot of it deserved? Maybe some.”
Coach Sean McDermott is impressed by the maturity Jones showed in putting the past behind.
“He persevered, and that’s a testament to Zay,” McDermott said. “He’s still a work in progress, like we all are. But to be able to step back and learn and grow from those moments on the field and then off the field in February says a lot about him as a person.”
NOTES: DE Shaq Lawson did not practice a day after hurting his elbow. … DE Trent Murphy, who has missed three games with a knee injury, practiced on a limited basis. … LB Matt Milano has been cleared from the concussion protocol.
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