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Player Spotlight: Julio Jones

A detailed tour through the 2017 fantasy outlook for Julio Jones

Pros

He’s a true volume dominator. Jones remains the absolute and unquestioned face of the Falcons passing game, and there’s no close second. With mere complementary types behind him in the pecking order and no offseason acquisitions of note, Jones projects for another run at 100 receptions, assuming a 16-game season.

He’s simply tremendous. Jones is a world-class receiver and a Hall of Fame-caliber downfield threat. He turns major volume into major yardage, and he’s barely 28 years old. Barring injury, there’s no realistic scenario in which his usage or efficiency drops off within the next few years.

The Falcons offense, often at least solid, was nothing short of sparkling in 2016. This offense is fresh off of leading the league in yards per play, net yards per pass attempt, and percentage of scoring drives – as well as tying for eighth all-time in scoring.

Cons

He’s not a major touchdown threat. In fact, when compared to his ADP peers in Round 1, he’s a downright anemic touchdown producer. Much of this concern is mitigated by his outstanding numbers elsewhere, but it dings his relative upside for sure.

He struggles routinely with a variety injuries. Jones has already fractured his right foot twice and had Jones surgery in 2013. Since then, he’s also missed practice and game time (three games) to a variety of lower-body ailments, including nagging turf toe last year. Predicting injury is a fool’s game, but most other options in his ADP range lack that public history and project safely to 16-game seasons.

The Falcons offense is good, but likely not that good. The numbers above were staggeringly great, but also wildly beyond those of any recent Falcons season. In 2015 they were middle-of-the-pack in all of those categories and scored 201 fewer points, while quarterback Matt Ryan threw 17 fewer touchdowns.

as a player, “Simply Tremendous” might not even cover it

If you’re on the fence regarding Jones as a top-level receiver, and you need me to state some kind of case for it, then football fandom might not be for you. Over the last three years, Jones sits:

-   Third in the league in targets (496, or 11.0 per game)

-   Second in receptions (323, 7.2)

-   First in receiving yardage (4,873, 108.3)

-   Second in PPR scoring (920.4, 20.5)

That’s obviously outstanding; on those numbers alone, Jones is a clear-cut top-3 fantasy wideout target in this or virtually any draft season.

Most receivers specialize statistically in one or a few measures of usage. We see small slot men like Jarvis Landry dominate targets and rack up gobs of receptions, but fail to produce significant yardage. We see splash-play dynamos like T.Y. Hilton maximize varying levels of volume, making their hay primarily from hefty yardage totals. But Jones is the best of both worlds: He boasts an absolute stranglehold on target opportunity in Atlanta, with a league-high 30.0% of team targets over the last two years, and few receivers create downfield yardage at a stronger rate. He routinely sits at or near the top of the NFL in air yardage, yet always registers a strong catch rate (64.3% since 2012) that produces both eye-popping volume and dynamic production.

As the clear dominator of an efficient (and, last year, historically great) offense, Jones’ first-glance outlook is as strong as anyone’s. I can’t imagine any factor popping into view anytime soon that will ding his value as a high-level WR1. But from a fantasy perspective, he carries a fairly unsightly wart, one that threatens his standing as a hands-down top-3 receiver option.

An Allergy to the End Zone?

We’ve seen this going on for several years now, and it’s time to get comfortable with the sample size. Jones just doesn’t score touchdowns – at least, not at the rate that his first-round peers do.

When a fantastic receiver (like Jones) notches a season of suboptimal touchdown production, we tend to shrug it off as fluky. A future Hall of Famer posting 136 receptions but just 8 touchdowns certainly seems like an odd bit of happenstance, and we’d likely expect that rate to swing back positively the next year. But in Jones’ case, those subpar totals make sense, as they’re backed by hard historical data. Simply put, Jones is not much of a factor near the goal line, and he hasn’t been since his second year (2012). That season he drew 20 looks from within the red zone, tied for seventh-most leaguewide, and converted 7 of them into touchdowns. That 35% rate was solid – well above the season’s league average of 24% – but it hasn’t been repeated.

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We need to embrace the idea that Jones just isn’t a very good short-yardage receiver. He’s not terrible, of course, typically landing fairly close to the league average. But he pales in comparison to most No. 1 receivers – and to his ADP-mates.

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And it’s (primarily) this issue of touchdowns that keeps Jones from contention for the top wideout slot. His resume is one of a truly phenomenal all-over-the-field receiver, but not much of a touchdown producer at all. Such a relatively subpar scoring outlook caps one’s upside – you’ll rarely see anyone finish as a top-flight fantasy receiver with just five or six touchdowns. In fact, over the last 4 years, we’ve only seen two WR5 (or better) seasons that featured a touchdown rate below 7%. For Jones, whose rate over the last 3 years is an anemic 6.2%, that’s not a good sign.

Now, that fact has to be qualified with a few disclaimers. First and foremost, Jones was indeed one of the two that managed the feat – he was the WR2 in 2015 with just 8 touchdowns on 136 receptions. Also, Antonio Brown finished as WR3 in 2013 with a 7.3% rate – just a hair above our cutoff. Furthermore, those rankings are based on cumulative totals, and Jones has achieved the WR5 mark two more times on a per-game basis with sub-7% touchdown rates (2014 and 2016). So, without question, if anyone is going to return WR5 value with a low scoring rate, it’s absolutely Jones. Still, when we’re valuating these top options – all dynamic and typically clustered tightly together in ADP – we’re prioritizing season-long accomplishments. Simply put, 14 games of WR4 Julio Jones isn’t quite as valuable as 16 games of WR5 Odell Beckham Jr. All told, we’re looking at an achievement that’s been dominated by true touchdown threats. Over that 4-year span, top-5 wideouts have averaged an 11.5% touchdown rate, and 15 of the 20 have landed above 9%.

Now, new offensive head Steve Sarkisian has been paying lip service to the idea of increasing Jones’ red zone usage. Maybe he will, though it’s curious why no one else thought of that before – and it won’t help much if Jones remains inefficient on those targets. We can speculate all we want on the year-to-year touchdown potential of such a world-class receiver, but it would be irresponsible to project anything beyond a 6-7% rate for Jones. In fact, I’m banking closer to the light end of that range for 2017. Consider that his quarterback, Matt Ryan, spiked wildly in red zone volume and touchdown rate last year, completing a monstrous 63 red zone passes and throwing a career-high 38 overall scores. A regression to the mean seems almost certain, which would ding Jones’ touchdown outlook a bit more. That would definitely land him at least 4-6 touchdowns behind the league leaders, and almost certainly a handful of scores behind a few of his ADP peers.

That four-touchdown difference doesn’t seem huge on the surface, especially when we factor in the relative unpredictability of red zone performance and touchdown production. But those 24 fantasy points are crucial. After all, they equal the difference between a 100-catch receiver and a 76-catch receiver, or between 1,200 yards and 960. That’s why we have such a small number of top-level WR seasons without strong touchdown totals. Quite frankly, to excel on that plane without touchdowns almost always requires team target shares and volume that are nothing short of mammoth.

In other words, for Jones to bridge that gap, he’ll need to produce another almost-supernatural target count – plus, of course, stay ultra-efficient in the process. That’s an order within Jones’ range of outcomes – he drew 203 looks in 2015, remember, as the WR2 – but it’s not something we can confidently project for 2017. Jones is a quintessential target hog in Atlanta, but his usage came back to (relative) earth in 2016. His target shares over the past 3 years have vacillated from 27.5% to 32.7% and back down to 27.5%. It’s hard to imagine a return to that wild 2015 number – and that’s not to mention, of course, that Jones has lost 14 games to injury over the past 4 years.

That touchdown scarcity also speaks somewhat to Jones’ floor. Touchdown studs like Jordy Nelson and Dez Bryant can generally withstand iffy volume seasons with overachieving touchdown totals, and an unexpectedly weak year can be salvaged by a red zone king who scores at a strong clip. If Nelson were to slip to 75 receptions this year, for example, history suggests he can realistically atone for much of it by catching 10 or 11 touchdowns. Historically speaking, Jones doesn’t carry that kind of cushion. His value will mostly live or die by his volume and efficiency marks, and while he’s among the best at producing those, we likely wouldn’t see him rescue a drop-off with touchdown production.

The Injury Bug

Again, I'm not interested in trying to predict injuries. In almost all cases, But a chronic injury situation deserves our attention – not necessarily our condemnation, but our attention. And Jones has a few of those chronic issues brewing. Again, he's suffered two fractures to his right foot since 2010 and underwent (somewhat) invasive Jones surgery in 2013. Recovery rates from Jones fractures are strong, but there's still a small yet noticeable complication/refracture rate. It's no death knell to Jones' prospects, obviously, and he's gone fracture-free for the last four years. But it's still something to store away – and none of his ADP peers carry that kind of concern. When we also consider that Jones lost time last year to ankle and calf strains, as well as nagging turf toe, we see that he's just not as reliable for 16 games as those peers. (He also had minor bunion surgery this March, for whatever that's worth.) Jones tends to draw a lot of mid-week "Questionable" tags on the Falcons injury report, as well, adding a bit of uncertainty to the week-to-week plans of his owners.

Conclusion

Make no mistake: Jones still carries a high-WR1 floor, barring serious injury. We’re not entirely sure what to make of the exact workloads for some of his ADP-mates, but Jones remains the unquestioned centerpiece of the Falcons passing game; I don’t see anyone primed to eat further into his share. By my projections, only Mike Evans and Odell Beckham Jr. project for more targets over 16 games, and it’s extremely close – and both those guys saw their teams add intriguing weapons in the offseason. The fact that Jones is an elite yardage producer cements him as a top-flight option in any format.

Still, with several receivers at the top of the board who project so similarly in both production floor and ADP, we have to look toward ceiling to differentiate. And when presented with the choice of Jones, Beckham, Evans, Green, and Nelson, I’m placing Jones near the bottom. He’s not a real candidate for major touchdown production, and he carries more injury risk than most WR1s. Even with another 95-catch, 1,400-yard season, I don’t see him quite living up to an ADP of 1.05. He remains a studly pick in the middle of Round 1, but I’m prioritizing him below the top five wideouts, as well as the top four running backs.

Projections

ProjectorGmRecYdTDRuYdTD
Justin Howe 16 96 1449 6 0 0 0
David Dodds 15 94 1448 8 0 0 0
Maurile Tremblay 16 84 1362 8 0 0 0
Bob Henry 15 94 1470 8 0 0 0
Jason Wood 16 100 1500 10 0 0 0

Other Viewpoints

Scott Barrett of Pro Football Focus is smitten with Jones’ mega-volume and mega-efficiency:

“Over the past four seasons, Jones has ranked first, fifth, first, and first in yards per route run. Kyle Shanahan aimed for a more balanced passing attack last season, but I suspect Jones sees more targets this season following Shanahan’s departure.”

While Jeff Ratcliffe notes his struggles at getting involved near the goal line:

“There’s a fundamental problem with looking at red-zone targets: it’s much easier to score the closer you are to the end zone. In other words, a target at the 19 isn’t anywhere near as valuable as a target in the end zone. When we look at end-zone targets, Jones saw six, which was actually one more than he saw in 2015. That’s by no means a massive number, though. An increase in his work closer to the goal line would certainly help boost Jones’ touchdown production. In six professional seasons, Jones has only topped double-digit scores once.”

Our Matt Waldman is nervous over Jones’ injury history:

“The problem with Jones is chronic foot injuries, and as he gets older, those injuries could become more frequent. He’s still worth a first-round or early second-round pick despite the risk because there isn’t another receiver on his team that is remotely capable of performing as a primary option.”