Emerging from the scolding-hot fire and heavy layers of smoke that cover the tunnel in the Georgia Dome each Sunday is Thomas Dimitroff's boldest draft pick to date.
When the Atlanta Falcons GM traded up 21 slots in the 2011 NFL draft to select former Alabama Crimson Tide wide receiver Julio Jones, he was hoping to draft a transcendent talent that would not only help keep the Falcons in playoff contention for years to come but also ignite the potential in their franchise quarterback Matt Ryan.
Jones, standing at 6'3", weighing 220 pounds, was scouted as a big, physical receiver who could cruise up and down the field with the precision and speed of a Ferrari Tesstarossa. Like his super-car counterpart, Jones, dressed in the vibrant red and black colors, trotted onto the field that first season with the weight of world on his shoulders.
An integral piece to the mad scientist-like offensive concoction Dimitroff was trying to create in Atlanta, Jones joined the likes of superstar wide receiver Roddy White and future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez to form an atomic bomb of talent that would detonate on Sundays—shaking the NFL to its core. Led by quarterback Matt Ryan, the Falcons offense that year finished 10th overall in total offense, jumping up six slots from a season before, according to NFL.com.
Thanks to his 54 receptions, 959 yards and eight touchdowns in just 13 games played, it became clear that we were witnessing a special talent just starting to blossom. Along with A.J. Green—the man taken two picks ahead of him in the 2011 draft—Julio Jones showed all of us during his rookie year that it was just a matter of time before he became a dominant force in the NFL.
When Jones' second season finished up after a heartbreaking loss to the San Francisco 49ers, Falcons fans realized that Thomas Dimitroff's risk to create an elite offense had paid off.
Now heading into year three, people want to know: Just how good can Julio Jones be?
To try to paint a Norman Rockwell-like picture of the potential damage Julio Jones can inflict on opposing defenses, we first need to get an understanding of his skills, production and work ethic.
To start things off, we take a look at Jones' hands. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), out of the 79 passes he caught last season, Jones only had seven dropped passes to go along with it. Compare that to another Pro Bowl-caliber wide receiver like Victor Cruz—who had 86 receptions and dropped 12 passes—and you begin to understand the true strength and reliability of Jones' hands.
A reason for his great hands? Outside of his natural ability, Jones always aims to better himself with creative training techniques. Entering the 2011 NFL draft, Jones showed off some of his unique training techniques to the people over at Gatorade. Using tennis balls as training tools, Jones said he would catch up to 1,000 balls a day to improve his finger-catching techniques. A downright workaholic, watching Jones work to improve his game is truly a sight to see.
Talking about work ethic, since his high school days, Julio Jones has always possessed an unrelenting one. Way back when he was being recruited to play college ball, ESPN's Billy Tucker quoted Jones as saying:
"People talk about my work ethic sometimes more than my playing ability, which is nice. I try to get better every day, and I think the hard work has helped turn me into a better person and not someone who would get a big head."
Whether it was the time he spent in the weight room improving on his physical skills or his creative ways to get better off the field, Jones' work ethic and modest attitude have carried over to his days with the Falcons. A wide receiver who is so humble and so focused is a rarity in the NFL. The wide receiver position has generated countless divas (from Keyshawn Johnson to Randy Moss). With Julio Jones, you don't get that vibe at all.
But how good can Jones really be? In an offense cluttered with dynamic offensive talent, Jones still hasn't become Matt Ryan's Buzz Lightyear just yet—Roddy White still racked up 149 targets compared to Jones' 129 targets—but if we use recent history to predict the future then I point you to last year's NFC Championship game as evidence that he will.
Jones' performance against the San Francisco 49ers was just flat-out absurd. Breaking Alfred Jenkins' franchise playoff receiving record, Jones torched the Niners secondary for 11 catches for 182 yards and added two touchdowns just for good measure. It was without a doubt a lights-out, "break out the fire extinguisher and cool this man off!" showing from a second-year wide receiver in the biggest game of his professional career.
While there may not be a defensive back in this league who can keep up with him, Jones' production should only slightly improve as long as White and Gonzalez cede some targets but remain integral parts of the Falcons offense.
Overall when you look at Julio Jones from a mental, physical and sheer talent standpoint, the draft picks Thomas Dimitroff mortgaged the franchise with seem like nothing more than an afterthought.
This young man is a superstar-grade playmaker who will only improve, all while shredding defenses on his way to the promised land. He is a 2,000-yard, 20-touchdown talent just waiting to happen. If he can stay healthy, Falcons fans need to understand that no one will be able to stop Julio Jones.