FLOWERY BRANCH – Julio Jones is different. He is not different just because of his rare combination of size, strength and speed for a wide receiver, or because he possesses the ability to be one of the premier players in the NFL. We’ve seen guys with talent.
Jones is quiet. He is humble. He doesn’t spend every waking minute tripping over his ego, his tongue or his Tweets.
Do you know how rare that is for an NFL wide receiver? The position breeds divas. Keyshawn Johnson spent a career screaming, “Throw me the damn ball!” but he might as well have been a spokesman for the position.
Jones doesn’t set goals. He doesn’t write numbers down on a piece of paper and put them in the top desk drawer to check after the season. He doesn’t even think, “I want to be the greatest wide receiver in NFL history.”
His career objectives are simpler. More common-man-like.
“When it’s over,” he said, “I just want to look back and think, ‘I left everything on the field.’”
He was sitting in a quiet office following Falcons practice Tuesday. The subject was one he would prefer to avoid: himself. Unfortunately, he is too good and too important to this team to avoid.
NFL teams don’t trade a blur of draft picks, potentially mortgaging the franchise’s future, for just a pretty good player. They take that leap for difference-makers. They take that leap for guys who can change a game, alter the direction of a season and maybe help redefine a team.
We’re probably going to find out this season just how great Julio Jones is. He had a tremendous rookie season: 54 catches, 959 yards, eight touchdowns. Those are impressive numbers, even before considering this backdrop: 1) He was coming off pre-draft foot surgery that affected his offseason conditioning; 2) He was limited in work with the playbook and quarterback Matt Ryan because of the lockout; 3) He played much of the season with a hamstring injury that forced him to miss three full games and parts of others; 4) He was subjected to the play-calling of Mike Mularkey, who never utilized him in screens or designed nearly enough plays to get Jones the ball in open spaces.
When asked about his rookie season, Jones said only, “I was all right.”
On a scale of 1 to 10?
“Maybe five or six.”
And how do you feel now?
“I’m a 10. I feel 100 percent. I know the playbook. Matt and I are on the same page. I have high expectations, not only for myself but for the organization.”
If the Falcons finally take that next step this season, it will be because of Jones. If he doesn’t finish with more receptions than Roddy White, there’s an excellent chance he’ll at least make more impact plays, steal more moments, win more games.
No defender can stay with him in practice. When one is close, Jones goes up to make the catch anyway. He burned Asante Samuel on the second play of an 11-on-11 drill Tuesday. He torched poor 5-foot-9 Robert McClain on another play in the end zone, prompting one fan to yell, “You need somebody taller!”
But you won’t hear bragging from Jones.
“I’m not a selfish person,” he said. “Growing up, that’s just how my mom raised me. I don’t take anything for granted. You don’t know the people around you, so you can’t disrespect them or mistreat them. They might be the same people you meet later in life.”
When asked about potentially having a starring role in the offense, Jones talks about his chemistry with Ryan and gaining the confidence of coaches. It’s always about the bigger picture. “I really don’t care about the spotlight,” he said. “That’s why going to a place like Alabama was good for me. When you put your pads on, you wouldn’t know who’s a walk-on and who’s a scholarship player.”
A recruiting story: Jones was one of the nation’s most sought-after players in 2008. Logic suggested the kid from Foley, Ala., was going to pick the school in Tuscaloosa. But it wasn’t until he met coach Nick Saban that he was sure.
“Growing up, I really didn’t watch a lot of college football,” Jones said. “But one of the reasons I liked Alabama was when I went to visit coach Saban, he said, ‘Well you know, we want you here. But we’re going to win with you or without you.’ I was like, that’s me. I just want to win. I don’t like stuff just given to me.”
If only he were the prototype.
By Jeff Schultz