There was a nasty rumor circulating on social media this spring -- imagine that -- among football fans and observers that Julio Jones is no longer a game-changing wide receiver. That the 32-year-old, coming off an injury-riddled season in which he missed seven games, was overpaid by the Falcons on a contract that carried an exorbitant cap figure over the next three seasons. That he wasn't worth whatever Atlanta was going to demand for him on the trade market.
Titans general manager Jon Robinson, who sent a second- and fourth-round pick to Atlanta in exchange for the seven-time Pro Bowler in June, is betting he knows way more about what the tape shows than the wannabe GMs. And I like his chances.
While speaking with an AFC exec back in May, I was told Jones "can change the entire calculus of your offense." The stats from 2020 still back that up. Jones averaged 11.3 yards per target, third in the league among those with 50-plus targets. His big-play reputation is deserved; 31.2% of his catches went for 20 yards or more. And despite playing only nine games, Jones still piled up 771 receiving yards.
Appearing on the podcast Million Dollaz Worth of Game earlier this month, Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey said the new Titans wideout is among the top three toughest-to-guard receivers in the NFL.
"Julio can do it all," Ramsey said. "Fast, big, run good routes, catch, run after the catch. He do it all. When Julio healthy, he a dog. He a dog, for sure."
"He is as good as anybody of getting guys feeling like he is running a go route or running a post route, and then his ability to stop at that level of explosiveness and still come out of it at 6-foot-3, as big and strong as he is, it is not easy to do and nobody can do it but him."
Robinson is banking on all of this as Jones joins a Titans offense that flourished under coordinator Arthur Smith (who left this offseason to become the Falcons' head coach). Over the last two seasons combined, the Titans ranked in the top five in the NFL in points per game, yards per game, rushing yards per game and passer rating. Yes, there were some defections -- receiver Corey Davis signed with the Jets and tight end Jonnu Smith headed for the Patriots. But the addition of Jones could both offset those departures and create a new set of mismatches for Tennessee's new OC, Todd Downing, to exploit.
For starters, Downing now has two incredibly gifted receivers in Jones and third-year pro A.J. Brown. Both can line up in multiple spots, including the slot. In limited sample sizes a season ago, both ate while working from the inside, with Brown ranking second in yards per route run from the slot, per Next Gen Stats, trailing only the oft-injured Deebo Samuel; Jones tied for 12th.
If past history is any indicator, Downing will live in "11" personnel -- that's what he did in 2017 as the Raiders offensive coordinator, operating with three wides 71.3 percent of the time, per Next Gen Stats. Between Jones' arrival and the addition of receiver Josh Reynolds in free agency, Downing has the necessary pieces to do so. That said, in speaking with Downing earlier this offseason, it was clear he's not married to anything other than making this offense soar.
"I am not as caught up in putting Todd Downing's stamp on the offense as I am coming up with what the right recipe for the ingredients we have is, and making sure that we're as competitive and consistent as we can be," he said.
Perhaps that's Downing indicating that he won't be as stingy when using play-action as he seemed to be in Oakland. (The Raiders ranked 30th in the league in play-action rate in 2017.) Smith's offense used play-action often and effectively with quarterback Ryan Tannehill at the helm. While it's true that Tannehill completed a higher percentage of his passes without play-action last season (68.3% to 60.5%), his 9.7 yards per attempt with play-action trailed only Tom Brady, Deshaun Watson and Kirk Cousins.
Now throw Jones into a mix that also features running back Derrick Henry, coming off a 2,000-yard season (and his second with 1,500-plus rushing yards), and you can understand why that portion of the Downing/Raiders playbook needs to modified. There is just too much big-play capability.
Defenses that struggled to contain the Titans in the past now must be wondering, at least on paper, how in the hell they can slow this unit down. Slide a safety to Julio's side, leaving Brown singled on the back side or in the slot? Do the reverse and let Jones face single coverage? Add a sixth or seventh defensive back to eliminate gaps in the secondary? That means a heavier dose of Henry. Ask Josh Norman and anyone else who's tried to wrangle that dude one-on-one how poorly that can go.
Now it's up to Downing to allow the Titans to reap those rewards.
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