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Player Spotlight: Julio Jones

A detailed look at Julio Jones' fantasy prospects for 2016

As a Player

With all due respect, if you’re on the fence on Julio Jones’ ability on a football field, sports scouting may not be the pastime for you. Athletic and instinctive to an almost obnoxious degree, Jones is the league’s premier dominator of coverage on every level of the field. His ability to both shed man coverage and slip between the tightest of zone sets is arguably the best we’ve seen in some time. Not even bracket coverage is particularly effective; Jones is moved all over the Falcons’ formations, creating mismatches before the snap and punishing lesser cover men after it. He’s frequently audibled into action, kept in quarterback Matt Ryan’s hip pocket as the don’t-give-it-a-second-thought safety valve on just about any given Falcons play.

Suffice it to say that the Falcons pass game runs through Julio Jones, whether on quick slants and dig routes as an extension of the short game, or as an explosive downfield option. And he’s spun all of that attention into gold with absurd production, thanks to remarkable per-target efficiency. Jones’ 9.52 yards per target is fifth in the league dating back to 2013, helping him to an eye-popping 4,044 yards over his last three seasons[1]. His 2014 was fantastic, but his 2015 was a run at the record books, with a final line (136 catches, 1,871 yards, 8 touchdowns) rivaled only by Antonio Brown – and comfortably ahead of the rest of the league’s wideouts.

Opportunity Knocks

Neither talent nor production look like issues for Jones. So how about his usage potential? Over the last three years, it’s soared off the charts; he drew a league-best 32.7% of team targets last season, and was third in 2014 at 27.5%. That’s allowed him to account for 28.7% of the team’s offensive yardage over the last two years, a startling figure of domination that not even Brown can boast.

So, to what extent can we expect that to continue? The Falcons offense is relatively pass-heavy, will likely trail more often than not in 2016, and looks to Jones first on the majority of its throws. As such, Jones (and Brown) again project to pace the league in usage and targets. But it’s hard to expect another close brush with 140 catches. Jones’ 203 targets from last year were good for third-most all-time, and just two short of the NFL record; how much further could even Jones ascend than a 33% team market share?

zyrtec, for touchdowns

As the league’s most targeted and arguably most productive wideout, it’s hard to find warts on Jones, and many of his peripheral questions have been put to bed over the last few years. Still, no progress (negative progress, actually) has been made in resolving his sole fantasy drawback: the red zone.

Athletics are a funny thing. At 6’3” and 220 pounds, Jones hulks over opposing cornerbacks, who boast average dimensions of 5’11” and 193. His rare blend of size, separation skills, and leaping ability is not easily defended between the 20-yard lines. But for whatever reason, he’s been a truly poor producer near the goal line, and it’s taken an unavoidable toll on his touchdown numbers. As great as Jones has been for fantasy owners, he’s left them wanting a bit with his Andre Johnson-like tendency to semi-disappear in the TD column. With just 16 touchdowns over his last 36 games, Jones’ 5.7% TD rate falls well below that of every other WR1 candidate in 2016 drafts. Compared to top-level touchdown-makers like Dez Bryant and Allen Robinson, Jones’ scoring rate is merely a blip from the far rear, so guys like that could easily close the gap in the WR1 ranks.

From inside the 10-yard line, a top-level receiver is generally expected to turn at least 35-40% of his targets into touchdowns. Randall Cobb boasts a 45.9% rate dating back to 2011, for example, while the inefficient Rueben Randle checks in at just 28.0%. There’s a lot of year-to-year variation on these rates, of course, which often can’t be predicted. But most elite receivers find their way into the upper ranges more often than not. Note that Jones’ career TD rate from inside the 10 sits at an anemic 25.7% (9 of 35). That’s by far the worst rate among Jones’ WR1 peers, and it hinders his overall fantasy outlook just enough to keep him from Antonio Brown’s throne.

Yes, a relative lack of touchdowns is a notable black mark, even for a mega-producer like Jones. Consider: had Jones found the end zone at a solid yet realistic 9.0% clip[2] in 2015, he’d have produced 12.24 touchdowns, adding 1.59 points to his weekly average. Note that that 25.4-point swing was roughly equal to the PPR scoring gap between overall WR7 Larry Fitzgerald and WR13 Eric Decker. If that’s the disadvantage I can expect to hold by rostering Jones versus Brown or Odell Beckham, Jr., then I’m at least a little hesitant on the guy who seems allergic to touchdowns.

To definitively outscore the top of the WR shelf, Jones needs the video-game reception/yardage numbers he posted in 2015. And while he’s as capable as anyone to repeat them, 136 catches and 1,871 yards are very tall orders.

Positives

-          Again carries absurd usage and volume projections as the most (only, really) dynamic receiving target in Atlanta; should again threaten the league leads in catches and yards

-          Probably the league’s most gifted in terms of climbing the field, with 56 catches of 20+ yards over the last two years to show for it

-          A reliable and dynamic underneath target who can excel in PPR formats even when downfield coverage is tight and effective

Negatives

-          The odds-on frontrunner to lead the league in targets, receptions, and yardage, but will likely regress from his absurd 2015 numbers; projecting him to another 136 catches is short-sighted

-          Simply doesn’t find the end zone often, and it’s a pattern; doesn’t see the short-yardage usage that many NFL dominators do, and has been brutally ineffective when featured in the red zone

-          An extremely high-volume player who’s battled numerous injury concerns dating back to his 2011 combine, including a twice-broken and repaired foot, hamstring woes, and a hip pointer

Projections

Staff Member

Gm

Rec

RecYd

TD

Justin Howe

16

120

1676

7

David Dodds

16

120

1704

9

Jason Wood

16

120

1675

9

Bob Henry

16

125

1800

8

Other Viewpoints

Our Matt Waldman agrees with my decision to target Jones a hair behind Odell Beckham:

Eli Manning is a better vertical thrower than Falcons QB Matt Ryan, which gives Beckham the edge in my rankings. I think there’s a greater chance for the Falcons to divert more targets to Mohamed Sanu and Austin Hooper, because Jones’ fantasy totals benefited from Atlanta having no one else in the passing game.”

Andrew Mills of NFLSpinZone is giddy over Jones’ ability to meet last year’s wild fantasy marks:

“Jones is the one sure thing in the Falcons offense. He may not see 203 targets again, although that wouldn’t necessarily be the worst thing, but he will almost certainly rank higher than 16th in touchdowns among wide receivers in 2016.  Jones will be drafted appropriately as the second or third wide receiver taken off of the board.”

RotoViz’s Justin Winn projected the Falcons offense in depth, and concluded that “Jones is still an incredibly safe pick at WR.” Like Mills, Winn also projects a noticeable bump in Jones’ touchdown rate.


[1] Jones’ 2013 lasted just five games, but he drew 27.4% of Falcons targets over those five, and his 16-game pace was a jaw-dropping 131 catches for 1,847 yards and 6 scores.

[2] the average rate of 2015’s other top-6 fantasy WRs