Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones is already a great football player. That’s the simplest way to describe a 26-year-old wide receiver who has increased his production year over year since being drafted with the No. 6 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft.
And for most, that’d be enough. Great players at Jones’ position go on to long, lucrative careers, racking up impressive statistics, making a handful of Pro Bowls and skirting the edge of Hall of Fame consideration simply on statistics alone. Get lucky enough to land on a team with the talent to win a championship or two and a bust in Canton begins to feel more like a certainty than a likelihood.
That’s a helluva a career by any regards, and Jones has a lot of ground to cover before he merits Hall of Fame consideration, but if you were to tell the Alabama product right now that he could be one of the greats would it be enough?
A little over 700 miles to Jones’ north in Detroit, Calvin Johnson is operating at a different level than just about any wide receiver in the National Football League. And even though Johnson’s teams haven’t won anything of consequence, the combination of Johnson’s size, athleticism and his logic-defying numbers as a 29-year-old are enough to force us to ask questions about whether or not this is the most dominant player we’ve ever seen at the position.
That’s the kind of territory Julio Jones has the potential to enter as he enters his fifth season in the NFL coming off his most productive season to date. The 6’4″, 220-pound physical specimen is coming off a 104-catch, 1,593 yards season where he made his second Pro Bowl despite facing defenses on a weekly basis desperate to scheme him out of the game with Roddy White’s production starting to slow on the other side of the field.
Because of Johnson, we often fail to recognize what a force Jones is on the outside but if you compare their careers statistically you’ll notice a similar progression. Both players came into the NFL relying largely on their size and athleticism to overpower and outrun smaller or slower defensive backs, but as they became more steeped in the nuances of the position they gradually became more complete and dangerous weapons.
Jones is still in the process of becoming a more polished route runner and he has an advantage that Johnson never had under the tutelage of White, one of the most precise route runners of his generation. Last year as HBO followed the Falcons for “Hard Knocks,” their esteemed behind the scenes look at the culture of an NFL training camp, we got to witness Jones’ growth in that facet of the game firsthand.
White took Jones and some of the other younger wide receivers aside and essentially held private tutorials on how to create separation. Jones’ growth as a route runner is still a work in progress, but as he continues to find ways to create space he becomes infinitely more dangerous because the open field is where he does the majority of his damage.
With his size and power, if Julio Jones can create separation at the top of his route stem, he’ll have more time to secure the football and turn up field and there’s just not many defensive backs equipped to bring a guy like that down on their own. And while he’s not quite as big or as fast as Johnson (who is more of a long-strider), I’m not sure there’s a more explosive or powerful player after the catch in the NFL right now than Julio Jones.
For four years now, we’ve watched Jones get better on an annual basis. If that continues it’s hard to define the next logical step for a football player that we already label as great.
Since the NFC Championship game against the San Francisco 49ers in Jan. 2013, Jones has averaged over 112 yards receiving per game. That’s why it’s so damn scary to think that he might not be content with where he’s at.