Flowery Branch – Reaction to the Falcons’ leap of 21 slots to grab Julio Jones last April was swift and damning, and the criticism has regained traction as the team approaches the 2012 draft without a first-round pick. Now as then, the argument against the move can be stated this way: “You can’t trade five picks for a wide receiver.”
And here’s where I make like Michael Corleone in “The Godfather” when his older (and dumber) brother Sonny insists you can’t shoot a New York City police captain even if he is in cahoots with the knife-wielding Sollozzo. Patiently Michael lays out the reasons why, just this once, you could. Here’s where I tell you why dealing for Julio Jones was, contrary to popular belief, altogether right and proper.
1. Because the Falcons didn’t want just “a” wide receiver. General manager Thomas Dimitroff coveted either A.J. Green of Georgia, taken by Cincinnati with the fourth overall pick, or Jones of Alabama, plucked by the Falcons two spots later. “Those two wide receivers are the kind that only come along every few years,” Dimitroff said this week, which suggested he doesn’t see one as good in the 2012 draft class. (Asked if he did, he declined to answer.)
The belief in some circles was that Jones is a talent on the order of Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald, often identified as the NFL’s finest receiver. Of Jones, Dimitroff said pointedly: “He’s without diva-like qualities” — an appraisal that wouldn’t apply to many top-shelf wideouts.
2. Because Jones was as good as advertised. He missed three games because of injury, but caught 54 passes for 949 yards and eight touchdowns. In one half against Indianapolis, Jones made two astonishing plays — a diving end-zone catch between defenders so improbable it was first adjudged incomplete and an 80-yard runaway on a simple slant — that validated the Falcons’ exalted appraisal.
Dimitroff on Jones’ rookie season: “It was very good and encouraging with much upside. If he hadn’t been hurt, he’d have had 1,200 or 1,300 yards.”
3. Because this wasn’t a move just for 2011. Roddy White turned 30 in November. The Falcons saw in Jones a wideout who would first serve as 1A to White before becoming No. 1 himself. If Jones helped win a Super Bowl as rookie, great — but he didn’t come with an expiration date of Feb. 5, 2012.
The Falcons’ offense did improve statistically: From 16th-best in total offense in both 2009 and 2010, it was 10th-best last season. Still, this sleek offense didn’t manage a point in its playoff loss against New York on a day when Jones had seven catches for 64 meager yards. But surely new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter will feel a need to incorporate Jones more fully.
4. Because not trading for Jones wouldn’t necessarily have yielded a defensive upgrade. Consensus held that the Falcons had to bolster their D in the 2011 draft. Had they kept the 27th overall pick, they wouldn’t have spent it on a defensive end. Said Dimitroff: “All the ones we liked were gone.”
Six defensive ends were taken in the first 24 selections. (Cameron Jordan, who went to New Orleans at No. 24, started 15 games as a rookie but managed only one sack.) With an eye toward defensive ends, the Falcons had sought to move up between the 15th and 20th pick — but possible partner Jacksonville traded up to No. 10 and took quarterback Blaine Gabbert.
Had the Falcons kept the other two 2011 picks they sent to Cleveland — the draft’s 59th and 124th overall — and used them on defenders, there’s a chance neither might have become more than a rotational player. There was never a chance Jones wouldn’t start Game 1 of Year 1.
5. Because the pain of not having a first-round (or a fourth-round) choice in 2012 is eased by knowing Jones is under contract. NFL scouts value the draft pick above all else. Still, Dimitroff balked at a suggestion that in making the Jones trade he’d gone against his nature. “My background is in scouting,” he said. “But I am a GM.”
As such, he looked hard at his roster and made this determination: “We already had [defensive] guys who were better than those we were going to get in the draft. We determined that this was the time, more than any other, to make a bold move.”
Conclusion: The trade for Jones shouldn’t be viewed so much one player for five players but one singular talent over five draft picks — none of which was guaranteed to contribute immediately, three of which wouldn’t fall in the first 50 of their respective drafts. It was a heavy cost, but to secure this particular player it wasn’t outrageous.
Asked if he’d do the Julio Jones deal again, Dimitroff said: “Categorically, yes.” And just for the record, Capt. McCluskey and Sollozzo wound up dead. Michael Corleone shot them.
By Mark Bradley