The highest any player from East Carolina has ever been taken in the NFL draft is 24th overall. It’s happened twice, linebacker Robert Jones in 1992 and running back Chris Johnson in 2008.
The way Zay Jones’ name has been catapulting up the draft board in recent weeks, that record is about to be broken.
Despite breaking the FBS single-season and career receiving records in his final college season last fall, the now former Pirate was projected as a second- or third-round selection by most of the major draft “experts.”
Then he went to the Senior Bowl, where he followed up a strong week of practice by catching a game-high six passes for 68 yards and a touchdown while showing the scouts on hand that he was more than just a “program receiver.”
A month later in Indianapolis, Jones dispelled another knock against him by posting a 4.45 40-yard dash, one of the fastest among the wide receiver candidates on hand. By the time he reinforced that performance with another strong effort at ECU’s Pro Day last week, Jones’ stock had officially risen to first-round status.
Perhaps even higher than 24th, the standard his father set a quarter century ago.
“It would mean the world,” Jones said after his impressive Pro Day showing. “It would be great for the program. Everybody watches the draft. I don’t know a football fan who doesn’t watch the draft, so to have Pirate Nation to see me would be phenomenal. There’s something a little extra special about Round One.”
Jones caught 158 catches last season and finished his career with 399 grabs, breaking the NCAA mark set two years earlier by former Pirates teammate and current Atlanta Falcon Justin Hardy.
But the physical attributes he showed both on the field during games and in his workouts in front of representatives of all 32 NFL teams are only part of the reason why Jones could potentially be the first player at his position selected, according to ECU coach Scottie Montgomery — a former NFL wide receiver himself.
“The intangibles, the type of person he is, you connect all that with great hands.” Montgomery said. “And that’s what a National Football League receiver who plays for a long time looks like.”
While Jones is certain to have his name called on April 27 in Philadelphia, he was only one of 15 former Pirate stars trying to impress the scouts with their skills in the 40, the vertical jump, broad jump, bench press and specific positional workouts.
The others were defensive backs DaShaun Amos and DaShawn Benton, defensive linemen Demetri McGill and Fred Presley, linebackers Dayon Pratt and Terrell Richardson, quarterback Philip Nelson, offensive linemen J.T. Boyd and Will Dancy, wide receiver Brandon Bishop, tight end Brian Hardy, athlete James Summers, placekicker Davis Plowman and punter Worth Gregory.
For most of those players, the goal at Pro Day was catching the eye of at least one scout in hopes of being invited to an NFL training camp as an undrafted free agent or perhaps catching on with a team in the Canadian Football League.
But there’s still an outside chance that at least one or two could possibly sneak into the final few rounds of the draft.
The most likely of those candidates is Nelson.
A transfer from Minnesota whose only season as ECU’s starter went a long way toward rehabilitating an off-the-field reputation sullied by a past assault charge, Nelson got off to a hot start with the Pirates before being slowed by a nagging shoulder problem.
Even though his performance slipped late in the season, he was still good enough to earn an invitation to the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl in Carson, CA, where he took a bulk of the snaps for his team in a 27-7 victory. Nelson completed 11 of 18 passes for 102 yards and also rushed for a 1-yard first quarter touchdown while drawing rave reviews from his coach in the all-star game, former NFL head coach Mike Martz.
“He’s really an exceptional player,” Martz said. “It’s exciting to see what he’s going to do in camp for somebody. I think Philip is a starter in the league. I’m certain of it. He’s a good leader and has a real presence.”
He also had a solid Pro Day performance as the pitcher to Jones’ catching.
Things didn’t go as well for another former Pirate with realistic NFL aspirations.
James Summers was hoping to show off the versatility that saw him excel as a quarterback, a runner and a pass catcher during his two seasons at ECU. But a pulled hamstring suffered while running the 40 put an early end to his Pro Day effort and likely ended his hopes of getting drafted.
And yet, because of his ability to play multiple positions, as well as special teams, Summers remains an intriguing talent who will almost certainly get a shot to make a roster come fall.