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What an Increase in Julio Jones’ Production Really Means for Atlanta

By Jake Saltzman

If there is ever a time that NFL players prefer their names to stay out of the news headlines, it is probably right now, early June. With OTAs either already underway or set to resume in the next few days, frequent appearances in the media almost exclusively signal contract holdouts, like with Drew Brees, or legal troubles, like with Justin Blackmon and Jerome Felton.

Falcons’ wide receiver Julio Jones has also been a regular topic of conversation within NFL circles lately, but in his case, the reason for discussion pertains strictly to on-field activity.

It would seem not many people feel Jones’ 54 catches and eight touchdowns in his rookie season were telling of how effective Jones can be in the Atlanta offense. Though Jones went for nearly 1,000 yards receiving, and averaged over 17 yards per catch, all across the blogosphere NFL contributors are chiming in on how Atlanta could be in line for even more from the former sixth overall draft pick.

One article I’ve read even suggests Jones could be in a position in the Atlanta offense to break Jerry Rice’s single season record of 1,848 receiving yards, which the Hall of Famer set in 1995.

But is even more from Jones the key to the Falcons improving on last season’s 10-6 record and first round playoff exit?

While I happen to believe Jones’ productivity will increase, (if for no other reason, than because Jones missed three games last season) I’m inclined to say no.

First and foremost, the Falcons will continue to run the football with Michael Turner upwards of 20 times a game, or at least in games where the Falcons can afford to stick to their game plan. Though Turner isn’t getting any younger, he still provided the Falcons with six 100-yard games last season, which is a luxury the Falcons will hardly abandon.

Incoming offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter made a name for himself during his time with the Jacksonville Jaguars as a run-first guy, and while the Falcons have the quarterback in Matt Ryan Koetter never had in David Garrard, Quinn Gray or certainly the 2011 version of Blaine Gabbert, Turner and change-of-pace backup Jacquizz Rodgers will still account for a hefty portion of Atlanta’s offense. Given Turner’s build on Rodger’s durability, I would expect the Falcons to turn to their running backs rather than their receivers for the majority of looks inside the redzone.

Something else that will enable the Falcon’s offense to succeed on the ground is the fact that there is a good chance Koetter and Head coach Mike Smith will carry multiple on the roster. The Falcons picked up veteran and former Kansas City Chief Mike Cox midway through last season to replace Ovie Mughelli, and continue to keep Cox on the roster along with Bradie Ewing, who was the top fullback in this year’s draft. While by my count only five teams (Baltimore, Oakland, Jacksonville, New Orleans and Arizona) carried multiple fullbacks on their rosters last season, Dirk Koetter arrives from Jacksonville, where the Jaguars were the only team to carry three fullbacks last year. Ewing, much like Chicago’s fourth round selection Evan Rodriguez, is more of a hybrid, new-wave fullback, and can line up at tight end as well as in the backfield. Along with Tony Gonzalez and Michael Palmer, Ewing gives the Falcons plenty of size and versatility in the intermediate passing game, something the New York Giants relied upon all the way to the Super Bowl.

At receiver, don’t overlook Roddy White, who will continue to be number one on the depth chart ahead of Jones.

There may not be a more underrated receiver in the NFC than Roddy White, (though Early Doucet comes to mind) and coming off consecutive 100-catch seasons, White is the guy who barring injury will catch the majority of Matt Ryan’s passes. This bodes well for Atlanta, as not only is White a solid number one option, but he also creates chances for guys like Julio Jones and Harry Douglas, who don’t attract primary coverage. With White turning in an above average season with 100 catches and eight TDs as Atlanta’s number one last season, it would not appear the Falcons are nearly desperate enough on offense for Jones to surpass White on the depth chart. In an ideal world, the Falcons will essentially have two top receivers, with White as option 1 and Jones option 1A.

Yet while that scenario creates more chances for Jones, it doesn’t necessarily mean his production increases all that drastically in 2012. The Falcons aren’t necessarily going to throw the ball more than they already do, and even if they opt to, one would think Harry Douglas would be the guy defenses overlook. Two number one options at receiver eliminates the number two position, yet forces defenses to account for the third option. Douglass caught 39 passes as Atlanta’s number three a year ago, and should be even more of a threat with Jones set to join White in warranting double coverage on passing downs. Throw a returning Tony Gonzalez into the mix, and there is little reason to think Jones will need to see a significantly expanded role this year for the Falcons to improve.

Ultimately the message in all of this is that even if Jones records 54 catches again this season, the Falcons won’t be that much better, nor will they be that much worse. Throughout his tenure as coach Mike Smith has been all about offense, and that will hold true regardless of whether or not Jones’s production increases.

For Atlanta to reach the next level, which in their case means winning a playoff game, the Falcons will need to find a way to win ugly, low-scoring games. A look at Atlanta’s 2011 results is more telling than anything. Though the Falcons won 10 games last season, all but one of their losses came when they scored under 22.2 points, which was the points per game average in the league last season.

In other words, in games in which they scored more points than the league average, the Falcons were a remarkable 10-1. In games in which they scored under that average however, the Falcons were a dismal 0-6, including playoffs.

While teams like the Texans, Giants and Steelers all rely on solid quarterback play much the way the Falcons do with Matt Ryan (for the sake of this argument let’s put Ryan in a category with Schaub, Manning and Roethlisberger) all three of those teams showed an ability to win ugly last season. The Falcons did not, and as a result looked way outmatched in the playoffs, losing badly in a game with only 22 combined points.

Even if Julio Jones puts up even prettier numbers in 2012, don’t expect much to change unless the Falcons can win ugly.

After all, In the NFL ugly can really mean anything other than the deep passing game.

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One Response to “What an Increase in Julio Jones’ Production Really Means for Atlanta”

  1. J-Lo says:

    Your first point that the falcons will be spreading the ball around is sound. But the part about winning ugly is weak. You are thinking too deeply about a stat that fluctuates from year to year randomly. I think more to the point, and maybe this is what you were getting at, is that the Falcons have to find a way to beat elite teams – and this can sometimes be ugly, but we falcon fans are hoping for some beauty out of both the offensive and defensive units this year.

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