Faceoff: Julio Jones
Steve Holloway: Julio Jones was an impact player for the Falcons a year ago after being drafted No. 6 overall. In 13 games, he caught 54 passes on 102 targets for 959 yards averaging 17.8 yards per reception and scoring eight touchdowns. He is an immensely talented wide receiver who has been highly regarded since high school, and there are a number of compelling reasons to have confidence that his opportunities should increase this season.
Matt Ryan is entering his fifth NFL season and in every year throughout his career, the Falcons number of passes thrown has increased, from 434 as a rookie up to 594 a year ago. Ryan has been given more freedom as he has matured and now is relatively free to audible. The Falcons actually passed the ball more often last season than any team other than the Lions, Saints, and Patriots. Michael Turner, the Falcons' primary running back has had 1,190 carries in his four years with the Falcons, averaging just over 20 carries per game. He turned 30 recently and should not be used as often, so the number of passing plays should remain high and possibly increase to over 600.
Tony Gonzalez has been amazing over his 15-year NFL career and has averaged 77 catches for 800 yards and 6.7 touchdowns in his three years with the Falcons, but he will be 36 this season. No NFL tight end has ever caught more than 20f passes in a season at that age. I will concede that Gonzalez is possibly the all-time greatest tight end and he will exceed that number this year, but it has never yet been done. There is no doubt that Gonzalez targets will begin to decrease and the Falcons' best options for those decreases are their two talented wide receivers. Since Roddy White has consistently been among the league leaders in targets, I expect Julio Jones to be the primary beneficiary, particularly in the red zone.
The explosiveness of Julio Jones is readily apparent by all those that watch him play, but the numbers also tell that story. His 17.8 yards per reception average was the most for a rookie with at least 50 receptions since 1998, when Randy Moss averaged 19.0. Julio Jones should be more productive in his second year, because his hard working attitude will likely help him to build on the experience gained in his rookie season, especially with the increased opportunities.
David Baker: Julio Jones had an excellent rookie year and finished with 54 receptions, 959 receiving yards, and eight touchdowns. And he did that in only 13 games due to hamstring issues. Impressive to say the least. He's a big, physical player with great speed, and it's more than reasonable to expect his numbers to improve in 2012. But as long as Roddy White is on the team, Jones will be the second wide receiver option. Plus, wide receiver Harry Douglas is expected to get more action as well, as is second-year running back Jacquizz Rodgers in the passing game. And last I checked, tight end Tony Gonzalez is still on the team. At 36 years old, everyone assumes that Gonzalez will see decreased output, but there's little evidence beyond his age to indicate as much. At the same time, Atlanta remains a team that enjoys running the ball, especially with hard-hitting running back Michael Turner at the helm.
Despite all this, many believe that Jones is worthy of a top-10 ranking. Now none of this is meant as a slam against Jones. While he seemed to have some issues crossing the middle with a hit on its way, Jones remains a very young and talented player. Julio Jones seems likely on his way to NFL stardom. I just don't see Jones becoming a WR1 this year. Maturity might mean more consistency for Jones, but his play abilities are no longer going to surprise opposing teams and thus he might be less likely to have huge games.
Also, the Falcons offensive line struggled at time last season. While the team hired a new offensive line coach in Pat Hill, who has an excellent resume, there remains questions on the line, especially at left tackle. The team also hired a new offensive coordinator in Dirk Koetter. While Koetter is known for his abilities to install a vertical attack, changes at offensive coordinator and offensive line coach raise the possibilities of uncertainness.
Julio Jones time will come in this league. He's too talented and too much of a physical specimen for that not to happen. But the second year player might have to wait another year or two to become a WR1.