FLOWERY BRANCH — If Julio Jones blossoms into a major threat during this season, he could debunk the unwritten rule that it takes wide receivers three years to develop.
Last season, Jones ran, and sometimes hobbled, through his rookie season, getting by on sheer athletic ability and God-given talents.
With a year of offseason coaching and readjusted practice habits, Jones appears ready to fulfill the promise that led the Falcons to make a 5-for-1 trade with the Browns to move up 21 spots to select him in the 2011 draft.
Jones, after playing in a pro-style offense at Alabama, entered the league closer to being ready to play than some of his predecessors at the position.
“With the passing game being accentuated the way it is now, receivers are coming into the league just much more accomplished,” said ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” analyst Jon Gruden, who coached Green Bay’s wide receivers in 1993-94. “They know how routes adjust against a hard-corner force. They know how they adjust against bump-and-run. They have a pretty good understanding of how patterns work against man-to-man and zone coverages.”
Falcons coach Mike Smith and wide receivers coach Terry Robiskie had to reel in Jones this year in practice.
“He’s got to make sure that he paces himself for the entire season,” Smith said. “Julio is a guy that wants to go full speed all of the time. Believe me, there is a difference between game and practice speed. I think he has a much better understanding of that.”
Jones has refined his practice habits for his second training camp with the team. He no longer attempts to run every play with the first-team offense.
“Early on, that’s where I think the injuries came from because I wasn’t really prepared and in shape because I had the surgery on my foot, and the lockout was lifted sooner than expected for me,” Jones said. “So, I just had to go out there. I was thrown in the fire.”
Despite the signs that Jones is ready to blossom, Robiskie is still a proponent of the three-year rule.
“They need three years to grow, develop and learn the game,” Robiskie said. “Look at Roddy White. Look how long it took him to develop. I still think and believe that. The difference is that these days, a young guy can come in and make. … an [early] impact.”
The NFL’s offenses feature bigger receivers, such as Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald and Detroit’s Calvin Johnson. At 6-foot-3, 220-pounds, Jones fits into that group nicely.
“You see the development of these players and you see how big there are,” said NBC analyst Rodney Harrison, who was a Pro Bowl safety in the league. “They are 200-plus pounds and with an emphasis on being fundamentally sound.”
Last season, Jones worked out in the offseason with Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan.
The offseason programs, even the unstructured ones, help receivers adjust to the league quicker.
“When we drafted Anthony Gonzalez in Indianapolis, Peyton Manning drove to Columbus, [Ohio, twice a week] and threw with him for an hour and a half while he was still in school [at Ohio State],” said NBC studio analyst Tony Dungy, a former NFL coach and player. “They had the chemistry going. They probably threw 2,000 balls before Gonzalez ever got to training camp. That’s what, to me, is the big difference now. The receivers can practice with the quarterbacks, and they are going to get a jump on the
Jones played in 11 full games last season. He left two games early. He finished with 54 catches for 959 yards and eight touchdowns.
Projected over a 16-game season (used his 11 full games as the divider), he would have had 79 catches for 1,395 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2011.
That would have been in the discussion with Randy Moss’ 1998 rookie season in which he caught 69 passes for 1,313 yards and 17 touchdowns for the Vikings.
“That’s all hypothetical,” Smith said. “I know this, Julio is a better player today than he was last year when we were breaking camp. There is no doubt about that, just from the maturation process of understanding what it means and takes to be an NFL player.”
Jones has had a spectacular exhibition season. He’s caught 13 passes for 240 yards and one touchdown in three exhibition games.
Jones feels fine heading into the regular season.
“My hamstrings haven’t been bothering me,” Jones said. “I feel in top shape. I feel ready to go. I feel stronger than ever. I know my stuff, my material and everything.”
Jones knows that he’ll be working in tandem with wide receiver Roddy White and tight end Tony Gonzalez, who have taken the second-year player under their wings.
“They can’t double all of three of us,” Jones said. “That’s six people. Then you just have four or five people in the box. It’s not enough people. So, whoever they want to double, it’s the other player’s game. We going to try to step up and have [each other’s] back and make plays.”
The great Jerry Rice, the league’s all-time leading receiver, has predicted a big year for Jones. He doesn’t plan to let those lofty expectations change his play.
“People want me to catch 1,000 balls, but if we win and I catch one ball, I’m happy,” Jones said.
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