NFL Draft 2017: ECU’s Zay Jones states case as top receiver in his class

The 6-2, 201-pound Jones put on a show with diving catches, polished route running and proficient footwork near the sideline.

GREENVILLE, N.C. —East Carolina’s pro day Thursday nearly ended in disaster for Zay Jones.

The record-setting ECU receiver fielded some punts after runningroutes and retreated to catch a booming punt down the right sideline from ECU punter Worth Gregory.

As Jones tracked the ball, the kick led him toward some tackling dummies that were lying on the field. Jones tripped over a couple of the pads and crashed into a standup dummy as scouts and trainers ran over to check on him.

Jones was not injured and it was the only hiccup in what was an impressive showing by the East Carolina receiver in front of scouts and coaches from every NFL team.

“I think the toughest defender was the punching bag at the end,” Jones quipped following his workout. “I was just trying to keep the scouts on edge.”

Despite some erratic throws from ECU quarterback Philip Nelson, Jones put on a show with diving catches, polished route running and proficient footwork near the sideline.

“He’s gifted, athletically, and his length is probably what a lot of people don’t realize about him,” said East Carolina coach Scottie Montgomery, who spent four seasons in the NFL as a receiver and was the Pittsburgh Steelers receivers coach from 2010-12. “He has a large catch radius.

“Then the intangibles, the type of person he is, you connect all that with great hands, and that’s what a National Football League receiver who plays for a long time looks like.”

Jones set the NCAA single-season receptions record last season with 158 catches. Of those receptions, 91 of them went for first downs. He finished his East Carolina career with 399 receptions to break the NCAA career record previously held by former ECU receiver and current Atlanta Falcon Justin Hardy.

When the ECU season ended last November, Jones was considered a third-round prospect, at best, despite his prolificcareer. But he has gained momentum since January, when he had a stellar week at the Senior Bowl, and could now be a first-round pick in next month’s NFL Draft.

“Zay had the best week of all of the receivers. He was tremendous here,” Senior Bowl director Phil Savage told Omnisport last month. “He comes off the line with acceleration. He’s tough. When he’s pressed, he’s big enough and strong enough to swat hands off and quick enough to get away. And he’s got really sticky hands.

“I probably didn’t praise him enough. I thought he was clearly the best receiver here.”

And not just the best receiver. Wisconsin running back Corey Clement said the 6-2, 201-pound Jones was the best player in Mobile, Ala.

“Not only was he outstanding in practice, but the game, (he) definitely showed up,” Clement told Omnisport earlier this month. “He put up tremendous numbers and made himself stand out.”

There were some who still doubted Jones, despite having NFL pedigree with his father, Robert, a former ECU linebacker who was a first-round pick in the 1992 draft and won three Super Bowls with the Cowboys. His uncle is Jeff Blake, who spent 14 years as an NFL quarterback.

Then Jones ran a 4.45-second 40-yard dash and had an 11-foot broad jump at the NFL Combine and his stock has skyrocketed.

“He’s a really fast kid. A lot of people thought he wouldn’t run well,” Montgomery said. “He has unique short-space quickness as well, which gives him the ability to read and move on the run and still react quickly to the route.”

Robert Jones was the first ECU player selected in the first round when the Cowboys took him 24th overall in the 1992 draft. The only other first-rounder in ECU’s program history is running back Chris Johnson, who went 24th overall to the Titans in the 2008 draft.

Should Zay Jones follow in his father’s footsteps as a first-round pick, it would be “legendary.”

“To be the third guy to go in the first round, and I’m trying to beat my dad with the 24th pick, it would be awesome,” Jones told Omnisport. “It’d be better for ECU.”

Jones was primarily a slot receiver until Montgomery’s staff arrived on campus last year. Former ECU receivers coach Phil McGeoghan, who now holds the same position with the Buffalo Bills, moved Jones around to give him position flexibility.

Former ECU and NFL receiver Terrance Copper said Jones is the “most complete receiver” in this year’s draft class because he possesses every tangible and intangible NFL teams crave.

“He has great ballskills, great hands, runs good routes, but what he brings to a team off the field —his personality, the way he talks, the way he speaks and handles himself off the field. Organizations love guys like that,” Copper, who spent 10 seasons in the NFL, told Omnisport. “Zay is very unique. Whoever gets him is getting a good one.”

Jones mentioned Clemson’s Mike Williams, Western Michigan’s Corey Davis, Washington’s John Ross, USC’s Juju Smith-Schuster and Oklahoma’s Dede Westbrook as “phenomenal” receivers in what is a very deep draft class.

But Jones, who ran a varied route tree on Thursday, believes he should be “the No. 1 receiver” selected in next month’s draft.

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“I’m a very accomplished receiver,” Jones said. “I have the best hands and my work ethic is second to none.

“I’m confident in myself going into this. I’d rather bet on me than bet on someone else… I am the best receiver in this draft class.”

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