2013 Key Player: Julio Jones
For the Falcons offense to take the next step offensively, they may need wide receiver Julio Jones to take his game to new heights.
Jones marveled folks, including myself, in the NFC Championship game, catching 11 passes for 182 yards and a pair of touchdowns. All the while playing hurt, as Jones suffered some sort of injury during the second series when he took out a security guard along the sideline. But he didn’t miss a snap, and still proceeded to catch 7 more passes for 109 yards and a touchdown.
That sort of dominance is why the Falcons moved up to draft him. And myself being originally critic of that trade, it also compelled me to change my mind.
The Falcons offense looks like it should be able to provide a bit more balance on the ground with the addition of Steven Jackson this year. But the Falcons passing attack still doesn’t have a consistent vertical element to the offense. Due to the inability to run the ball effectively, the team had to trade off big plays for consistency trying to move the ball through the air. They finished last year ranked 29th in the league in terms of generating 20+ yard plays per pass attempt, not far removed from where they were in 2010 prior to the Jones when they were dead last in the league. If Jackson can help take pressure off the passing game to constantly be looking to move the chains, it should open more big play opportunities for Jones and the rest of the receivers.
Last year, the Falcons tended to use him on a lot of short routes. Roughly half (49.3%) of his 150 targets last year were on throws that didn’t go more than 10 yards in the air last year (according to Pro Football Focus). The Falcons wanted to take advantage of his physical tools to try to get him the ball quickly and allow him to make plays after the catch. It worked with great success as he was one of only a pair of 1000-yard receivers that average over 6 yards after the catch per reception (the other being Michael Crabtree). Short crossing routes and screens were highly effective for Jones and the Falcons last year, and should remain so in 2013.
A more efficient ground game however should give Jones more opportunities downfield. Jackson probably isn’t going to be a runner that can consistently draw an eighth defender in the box to allow Jones to go over the top. But if he can do a better job at keeping the offense on schedule on early downs, it will allow the Falcons offense to go into attack mode because they don’t have to fear third and long situations. And that’s where Jones can shine.
While Tony Gonzalez and Roddy White are still top receivers, they don’t have the skillset to scare opposing defenses, not in the same way that Jones does. Gonzalez is as good as any in the league when it comes to moving the chains on third downs and in the redzone. But the bulk of the work on early downs and between the twenties is done by Jones and White. And White isn’t as spry as he once was. The Falcons will probably continue to work White inside in the slot where he should be more effective against weaker slot corners. That leaves Jones to do the bulk of the heavy lifting outside the numbers. Jones is scary to defenses because he’s liable to take it to the house anytime he touches the ball. If a safety takes a bad angle on a quick slant, it can easily turn into an 80-yard touchdown. A missed tackle by a corner on a quick screen can easily turn into a 40-yard catch and run. With proper blocking, an end-around or reverse to Jones can be a huge gain on the ground.
That sort of fear is going to cause defenses to game plan primarily to stop Jones. If not already there, that performance against the 49ers last January put him firmly on opposing defensive coordinators’ radars. Which will open up greater opportunities for White and Gonzalez, as well as Jackson and the ground game. But the key for Jones will be despite the extra attention he gets, he still needs to make big plays. That is what makes players like Adrian Peterson and Calvin Johnson as great as they are, because teams know they have to stop them, but still cannot.
That’s exactly what the Falcons need from Jones if their offense really wants to take another significant leap forward. Gonzalez and White are on the downsides of their careers, and while their downsides are still better than probably 90% of the other receivers in the league, it’s not realistic to expect them to reach new heights. But Jones is just only scratching the surface of his potential. And if he can become more of that unstoppable force in 2013, then the Falcons offense can reach a new potency. Which is probably what is needed since I don’t believe the defense is going to be drastically improved this year. It’s a tall order for Jones, but certainly one he’s capable of achieving.
2013 should mark a big year for Jones. He should surpass White for the first time in terms of total targets. The reason he probably didn’t in 2012 was due to nicks and injuries that forced him out of a few games. That will be a key with Jones in 2013: staying healthy. He is by far the Falcons most potent weapon. And he gives them that “special” element that the team simply doesn’t have when he’s out of the lineup even for a handful of snaps. While Gonzalez and White are still outstanding players, it completely changes how defenses play them because opponents don’t have as much fear of the deep ball. Matt Ryan is not Eli Manning or Joe Flacco, and won’t just fling balls downfield any chance he gets. He’s going to pick and choose his spots. And most of those spots will be when Jones is on the field, whether that means throwing it to him deep, or when he is able to draw the safety away from White, putting him in single coverage. And while White made more than his fair share of plays downfield last year, he just doesn’t have that burner speed anymore to take the top off a defense on his own. That means teams are going to be more willing to bring defenders into the box to stop the run. And that will constrict the Falcons offense, as they will be much more reminiscent of the plodding unit they were in 2010 rather than the explosive vision that prompted Dimitroff’s big trade up in 2011.
That’s where Jones’ change in diet could come in handy. He appears to be taking a page from veterans like Tony Gonzalez and Steven Jackson, both of whom’s uncanny longevity appears related to what they put into their body. Jones has opted to eliminate beef and pork from his diet, and according to reports is already feeling the benefits. If that leads to him spending less time on the trainer’s table, it should be a huge boost to the offense.
Jones is poised for a big 2013. It’s prompted fantasy folks to almost universally rank him among the top five at his position. But if he manages even to surprise them and outproduce his lofty expectations this year, it could be the biggest reason why the Falcons could achieve greater success and take home the first Lombardi Trophy in franchise history.