Ranking the Falcons 2014: No. 1 Julio JonesI’ve counted down the top 40 players on the Atlanta Falcons, and let’s finish with top-ranked player: wide receiver Julio Jones.
To read the methodology I devised to rank the Falcons players, click here.
Total Score: 97/100
Last year’s rank: 2
Player Grade: 88/100
Teams he is starter: 28 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 32 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 32 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: +4
Positional Bonus: +3
Jones’ status as the top player can be simply revealed by looking at his play over his 10 most recent games. In that span, he’s caught 74 passes for 1,022 yards and seven touchdowns. Extrapolated over 16 games that would equal a full season’s total of 118 catches for 1,635 yards and 11 touchdowns. Such a reception total would tie for the 10th most in an NFL season, and his yardage would be the 12th most.
The Falcons offense has morphed into a Jones-centric one. Once upon a time, running back Michael Turner was the driving force of the offense, but now Jones makes it go. Matt Ryan’s passer rating drops 16 points when Jones has not been on the field the past three seasons, something the Falcons felt wholeheartedly last season when Jones missed the final 11 games of the season.
That’s simply because the entire complexity of how teams defend the Falcons changes dependent on whether Jones is in or out of the lineup. Defenses have to respect the deep ball when Jones is on the field, and don’t when he’s not. He dictates coverage as he constantly draws safety help over the top, which has opened up opportunities for Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez underneath, where they work beautifully.
There’s only a handful of elite corners in the entire league that opposing defensive coordinators would risk putting on an island against Jones, and even then they would be asking for trouble. He’ll get to match wits with some of them potentially in 2014 like Cleveland’s Joe Haden and Arizona’s Patrick Peterson.
But that’s not all to say that Jones is unstoppable. He struggled against the physical play of Aqib Talib last season against New England, and in past years has had some of his quieter games when facing more physical corners that aren’t afraid to get up in his face and jam him.
But obviously the biggest issue Jones faces is his durability. He’s missed nearly a combined 40 percent of the Falcons’ offensive snaps over the past three seasons. His propensity to end up on the trainer’s table dates back to his freshman year at Alabama in 2008.
The Falcons exercised the fifth-year option on his contract which will keep him in Atlanta through 2015, but he’s poised for a monster contract extension in the near future. That option basically gives the Falcons two more years to evaluate Jones before they are forced to pay him, and pay him they shall. It’s just only a matter of how much. And that will be determined on how Jones’ health holds up this year and possibly next season.
In 2012, Jones played in 90 percent of the team’s snaps, and it’s likely not a coincidence that the team nearly made it all the way to the Super Bowl. If he can equal or exceed that total this year, then he stands a good chance of being the next Falcon player that signs a contract extension on the eve of training camp. If not, then the Falcons may opt to wait another year before they back up the dump truck full of money to Jones’ house.
One big question about Jones’ health and future is whether or not the foot injury that cost him most of 2013 will become problematic in the future. He’s already injured it twice and a third time would be extremely troubling. Hopefully cutting-edge medical science can be a major factor in the Falcons’ favor.
Again, it’s not really about whether or not Jones gets paid because he will. With all the Falcons gave up for him in the 2011 draft, essentially general manager Thomas Dimitroff has hitched his wagon to Jones. But if Jones can’t prove he can stay healthy, it’s not really the money that is worrisome, it’s what the Falcons clearly lose on the field. The Falcons have yet to figure out a way to supplement Jones’ absence and that failure is the primary reason why the team finished so poorly last year. The organization, and particularly those within it that may not have the best job security simply can’t afford to have another season flushed away off the fragility of Jones’ body.