Raiders

Zay Jones ready to make impact after transition from Bills to Raiders

b66i7468.jpg
OAKLAND RAIDERS

Zay Jones ready to make impact after transition from Bills to Raiders

ALAMEDA – Zay Jones has spent the last two weeks in a small, small world. He goes from the Raiders training facility to a nearby hotel and back again, intently focused on mastering Jon Gruden’s complex offense.

Most members of the Silver and Black learn it over time during spring and summer, a great distance from the regular season’s do-or-die existence. Jones is learning on the fly after being acquired in a trade from the Buffalo Bills two-plus weeks ago, without time to do or think about much else.

“I think sometimes people can forget about the transition that comes with a trade,” Jones said on this week’s Raiders Talk podcast. “It’s your entire life that moves in a flash. Trying to find a place to live while focusing on the playbook. There’s hotel living while trying to get up to speed. It’s a blessing to be out here in Oakland. It’s a completely different vibe, but I really like it.”

He spent the entire bye week in a meeting room with Gruden, receivers coach Edgar Bennett and offensive quality control coach Nick Holz sprinting towards availability in last week’s game at Green Bay. His debut didn’t come then. but Sunday’s game at Houston should be his first in Silver and Black and, after a three-week crash course, Jones is ready to contribute.

He’s ready to move forward from a trying period in his life that he considered a shock to the system. Jones has pondered the sudden life change and the impact of leaving a Bills organization that drafted him out of East Carolina.

“It has been a lot. I really feel like I poured my heart into that organization,” Jones said. “I tried to give them everything I possibly could. I believed in it. I was bought in. Being realistic, the transition can be difficult sometimes when you pour a lot into one organization and then you quickly switch to another one. You have to understand the nature of the business and how it goes. I built some relationships I know I’ll have for a long time, but I’m looking forward to creating those types of bonds and relationships with the people here.”

While the transition isn’t always easy, Jones is assimilating quickly to the scheme and locker room culture. He’s getting through this adverse situation by relying on a mentality forged as an underrecruited talent with one scholarship offer that has carried him through difficult times.

“There have always been little knocks on me,” Jones said. “The one constant through all that is my ability to fight through adversity and the heart I’ve had. Challenges will be thrown your way. There will always be setbacks. There are going to my failures. There will be more in the future. Sometimes things won’t work out exactly as I’d like, but I know the type of player and person I am and the ability I have. I want to be successful above all else. That’s my mindset and the way I approach the game.”

That’s the way he battled through ending up with one scholarship offer-- none from his home state of Texas -- to set FBS records at East Carolina. That’s how he battled through some on-field struggles after turning pro. That’s how he kept eyes forward and carried on after an embarrassing incident in Los Angeles last year where his brother allegedly prevented him from jumping out of a window that made TMZ headlines no one wants. That’s how he has approached the initial disappointment of getting shipped from Buffalo, morphing it to a grand opportunity to help his new Raiders team.

Jones faces setbacks head-on and tries to improve as a person and/or player, learn from mistakes and become better for it.

“Sometimes life is going to hit you in the face,” Jones said. “There are going to be things you didn’t expect. Some things you wanted and didn’t get immediately. It’s about staying true to who you are and what you said you’re going to be. That has been the type of person I am. I have had my setbacks on and off the field. I would be lying to you if I said it didn’t bother me, but knowing how to shelf that and come back and attack each day trying to get better, that’s how I am and that’s what has been instilled in me by my parents. They are resilient people. They have had their highs and their lows, but they wear and smile and go to work. That’s what I want to mimic. No matter what happens, I’m going to keep working.”

[RELATED: Could Jordan, Beasley be pass-rush help Raiders need?]

His current goal is to maximize this opportunity with the Raiders. He’s under contract through the 2020 season and he wants to establish himself as a reliable target and major contributor both here and in Las Vegas next season. It’s important to show well for a team that sought him out in trade.

“It’s always good to be wanted, to be in a place like this,” Jones said. “They could’ve chosen hundreds of other players but they chose me. I’m grateful for that, but that fact in itself doesn’t guarantee anything. You still have to put the work in. You still have to go out on the practice field and put the hours in and grind. I’m just trying to be me, to be free to be myself and enjoy the opportunity that I have been blessed with and seize the moment. That’s all I can do. I know that, if I give my best every single day, that will be enough.”

NFL Draft 2020: Fifteen Prospects for Raiders to watch at Senior Bowl

NFL Draft 2020: Fifteen Prospects for Raiders to watch at Senior Bowl

Last year, Jon Gruden, Mike Mayock and the Raiders' coaching staff got a close look at a number of prospects who eventually would don silver and black while coaching at the Reese's Senior Bowl.

The Raiders won't be coaching this year, with their 7-9 record keeping them from the not-so-prestigious honor that is given to the Cincinnati Bengals and the Detroit Lions this season.

After hitting a home run with the 2019 draft class, Gruden and Mayock are looking to stack classes and fill some of their gaping holes via the 2020 NFL Draft. 

While they won't be coaching in Mobile, Ala., this week, the Raiders still will be hyper-focused on the talent at the Senior Bowl, of which there is a lot that could help the Raiders next season.

Yes, probable high draft picks Justin Herbert (QB, Oregon), Terrell Lewis (EDGE/LB, Alabama), Kristian Fulton (CB, LSU) and Javon Kinlaw (DT, South Carolina) all will be present at the Senior Bowl. And yes, all could intrigue the Raiders. But since the smart money is on Gruden selecting a wide receiver and a linebacker in the first round, we will spend this time focusing on some likely Day 2 and Day 3 guys.

Wide receivers

The Raiders need to select multiple receivers in the 2020 draft. I expect they'll grab either Clemson's Tee Higgins or Alabama's Henry Ruggs in Round 1 (CeeDee Lamb would be nice, but I don't expect he'll be available.) One receiver won't do it, though, and the Senior Bowl has a number of veteran pass-catchers who figure to be available later in the draft.

Michael Pittman Jr., USC: At 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, Pittman is a big-body receiver with bear paws for hands. He's a physical receiver and uses that to his advantage. Pittman has got a good catch radius and is a sufficient route-runner, but he lacks the ability to separate at the top of the route and isn't a dynamic catch-and-run guy. He'd be a solid Day 2 grab.

Brandon Aiyuk, Arizona State: He'll likely start to shoot up draft boards (we have him mocked to the 49ers with the last pick in the first round), but Aiyuk brings all the tools you want in a wide receiver. He has good hands with great after-the-catch ability. Likely won't be there, but he's one to watch.

Chase Claypool, Notre Dame: As my colleague Dalton Johnson noted, Claypool is a touchdown machine. The 6-foot-4, 229-pound athletic marvel has great hands, is an efficient route-runner and is great in contested catch situations. Drafting him would give the Raiders a jump-ball threat if they choose to move on from Tyrell Williams. 

Jauan Jennings, Tennessee: At 6-foot-3, 208 pounds, Jennings has prototypical NFL size. He led the Volunteers with 57 catches for 942 yards and nine scores. Questions about his character likely will make him slide, but a good showing in Mobile will help his case. 

Collin Johnson, Texas: Size, size, size. Johnson is 6-foot-6, 220 pounds and a lethal red-zone threat. Great at attacking the ball at the high point while maintaining control of his body.

K.J. Hill, Ohio State: Hill doesn't have the breakaway speed you'd like, but he's solid sub package wide receiver with great hands and polished route-running ability. Definitely, someone for the Raiders to watch.


Edge rushers

Marlon Davidson, Auburn: A Day 2 pick with a specific skill set, Davidson has impressive strength and uses his hands well which allows him to win at the point of attack. Great at keeping runs inside. Not a game-changing rusher, but someone to watch.

Jabari Zuniga, Florida: Zuniga is a versatile edge defender who has a powerful first step and strong hands that have destroyed tackles at the collegiate level. His lateral quickness and wingspan make him a good run defender as well.

Kenny Willekes, Michigan State: Willekes has an insanely high motor and is ultra-competitive. He's the type of player Gruden would love to add to the DL rotation. He is a good run defender and has a solid array of pass-rush moves. Needs to get stronger, but has a high-floor.

Bradlee Anae, Utah: Anae is quick and has good hands. He's a versatile guy who can rush the passer from an up or down position.

Secondary

K'Von Wallace, Clemson: Another Clemson guy? Why not? The Raiders need another safety alongside Johnathan Abram, and Wallace comes from the winning-factory in Death Valley. Wallace is a high-IQ player who played all over the secondary at Clemson. He's most successful as a roamer. At 5-foot-11 his lack of size could be an issue covering downfield at the NFL level, but I wouldn't be shocked to see the Raiders go here.

Linebacker

Malik Harrison, Ohio State: The Raiders need an answer at middle linebacker and Harrison might be the guy. He's a physical thumper in the run game. Coverage ability needs some work, but Harrison should intrigue Mayock and Gruden.

[RELATED: Raiders should follow draft blueprint, raid LSU-Clemson]

Defensive tackle

Leki Fotu, Utah: A late Day 2/early Day 3 guy, Fotu is perfect for a team that needs to create more pressure up the middle. He's an explosive player with great hands. At the moment. he's a rotational piece but could become a starter in time.

Davon Hamilton, Ohio State: At 6-foot-4, 310 pounds, Hamilton is a mountain of a man. He's a smart player who was productive even when facing constant double teams at Ohio State. To beef up the defensive line, the Raiders should look at Hamilton.

Kicker

Rodrigo Blankenship, Georgia: The Raiders almost certainly won't move on from Daniel Carlson, but if they do, Blankenship could be an option in the late rounds or as an undrafted rookie. He has a big leg and was very reliable during his time at Georgia.

Raiders’ Senior Bowl experience was vital to excellent 2019 NFL draft

Raiders’ Senior Bowl experience was vital to excellent 2019 NFL draft

The Raiders took their entire football operation down south this time last year to coach the Senior Bowl’s North squad.

That’s a luxury afforded to terrible teams from the NFL season that just concluded, and the 4-12 Raiders certainly were one. The provided an up-close look at some of the NFL draft’s finest prospects available throughout the selection process.

The Raiders got to see how players work in practice and pay attention in meetings, with an opportunity to swap squads – the 49ers coached the South – on the practice week’s final day.

Head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock got a great evaluation of every Senior Bowl prospect.

That week in Mobile, Ala., turned out to be an information gold mine. They learned to love a lot of those prospects and capitalized on opportunities to acquire them in the NFL draft or shortly after.

The Raiders drafted four Senior Bowl participants and signed three more after the amateur selection process.

“Coaching and being there really helped us a lot,” general manager Mike Mayock said after the NFL draft. “It really is a big deal to be involved in that game.”

The Raiders certainly hope this Senior Bowl week bears fruit, albeit with a lot less access to the prospects. They’ll send a slightly smaller contingent to this important evaluation week, though the Silver and Black still will canvas this group from stands over the sidelines. Practices start Tuesday, beginning a three-day stretch that’s more important than the All-Star Game itself.

Last year’s close-up look ended up putting several participants in silver and black.

The Raiders got Mississippi State safety Johnathan Abram in the first round, LSU tight end Foster Moreau and Houston cornerback Isaiah Johnson in the fourth and Clemson receiver Hunter Renfrow in the fifth. Then, they signed Wisconsin fullback Alec Ingold, Notre Dame linebacker Te’von Coney and UC Davis receiver Keelan Doss as undrafted free agents.

Everyone save Coney spent most of the year on the 53-man roster and many of them made a major impact on the 2019 Raiders.

Those guys should be an even greater part of the 2020 squad, with Abram expected to rejoin the starting lineup after he underwent season-ending shoulder after Week 1, and optimism is high after what was essentially a lost season for Johnson after he suffered a preseason facial fracture.

Renfrow developed into a major player, and even Ingold became a reliable blocker and short-yardage back. Moreau was a touchdown machine in his first season, forming a promising tight-end duo with breakout star Darren Waller.

The Raiders preferred Senior Bowl participants last year, and this practice week is something vital to pre-NFL draft evaluation. The Raiders have five selections in the top 92, broken down into two first-round picks and three more in the third down.

[RELATED: Raiders' Gruden, Mayock at East-West Shrine Bowl practice]

Last year the Raiders favored players from either championship college programs or Senior Bowl participants, with rare exceptions. There’s no telling if that’ll be the case again this year, but Senior Bowl game and practice film is a vital piece of the evaluation process.

“Everybody will tell you they look at the Senior Bowl practice tape, the Senior Bowl game film over and over and over,” Gruden said last year. “You watch the matchups over and over and over.

“I remember doing it with [late Raiders owner/GM Al Davis]. He would put the Senior Bowl on for the 44th time and I would say, ‘how many more times are we going to watch that game?’ There’s tremendous value in it. It’s a great tool and provides great matchups you would never see if you didn’t come here.”