ATLANTA -- The question of who now ranks as the NFL's best wide receiver is getting answered nearly every week in Atlanta. It's coming up whenever Julio Jones produces another spectacular catch, embarrasses yet another defense or leaves people around the league wondering why more teams can't control him. With all due respect to Calvin Johnson, Dez Bryant and Antonio Brown, they're all battling for second place when it comes to deciding who's most elite at their position. What's even scarier to think is that Jones appears to just be getting started.
This is becoming the season when we're all realizing why Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff was so willing to surrender five picks for the right to select Jones sixth overall in the 2011 NFL Draft. The common belief then was that Dimitroff must have lost his mind in taking a gamble that big on one player, especially a wide receiver. Today, there is a different vibe around that move, one that makes Dimitroff look like something of a prophet. Four games into this season, Jones is on pace for 152 receptions, which would shatter the league record for one season (143, set by Marvin Harrison in 2002).
"There is no doubt in my mind that Julio is the best wide receiver [in the NFL]," Dimitroff said. "He offers things that other players don't. No offense to them, but his talents on the field and off the field, his leadership, his focus on not only helping himself but the team get better. There is no diva element to Julio Jones."
The fact that Jones isn't a diva really hasn't been his problem with gaining notoriety. The fact that he's played on a lousy team the last two seasons while also fighting through injuries better explains why he's been less lauded than his peers around the league. When Jones first came into the NFL, he was part of a package deal on a Super Bowl contender, a dangerous weapon in a passing attack that also featured star quarterback Matt Ryan, Pro Bowl wide receiver Roddy White and future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez. When the Falcons bottomed out, Jones was missing plenty of games (11 in 2013 with a foot fracture) and generating gaudy numbers that didn't have much impact (a team-record 1,593 receiving yards in 2014).
Few people outside Atlanta envisioned Jones making a huge leap in his development this season, mainly because he already was pretty special. But he accepted the challenge given to him by first-year head coach Dan Quinn, the one that required him to go above and beyond what he'd already done.
"It started with the offseason," Jones said. "Coach really challenged us to have a great offseason, and I took that to heart."
The first thing you notice about Jones is that he is incredibly candid for a player who doesn't like to say too much. Ask him why the conversation about the game's top receivers rarely centered on him, and he'll say it's because he "wasn't healthy," and "to be considered great, you have to be out there to display your talents." When discussing the draft-day trade that Dimitroff engineered to acquire him, Jones also doesn't hold back, saying, "I thought I deserved it." So it's no surprise that Jones admits the trade created a special relationship between him and his general manager.
That deal, for better or worse, meant that Jones couldn't merely be a Pro Bowl player or a receiver capable of 100-catch seasons. He had to be a LeBron, a Kershaw, the type of singular force fans recognize by one name because their skills and their productivity are so extraordinary. Jones even displays a touch of guilt when talking about some of his injuries, saying, "They gave up a lot to get me, so Thomas and I are joined at the hip. He was getting so much grief for giving up so much. Thomas knew the potential I had, and I knew I could deliver by getting healthy."
There is no denying the results thus far. Jones had nine receptions for 141 yards and two touchdowns in a season-opening win over Philadelphia, then followed that effort with yet more monstrous numbers against the Giants (13 catches, 135 yards) and Dallas (12 catches, 164, two scores). He's been so outstanding that it was stunning to see Houston limit him to four receptions and only 38 yards last week (largely because the Falcons dialed back their attack once their eventual 48-21 victory got out of hand). It's reached the point that it's hard to remember that the man -- who has been nursing a hamstring injury -- is still human, after all.
It's a simple mistake to make when you're talking about a 6-foot-3, 220-pound specimen who runs the 40-yard dash in less than 4.4 seconds. But Quinn believes people too often think Jones is dominating solely because of his freakish skill set. Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan also does a great job of lining Jones up in places that make it hard for defenses to contain him.
"The part we don't think about with Julio is his football smarts," Quinn said. "He can [make plays] from a number of different spots on the field. He can move around [the formation], and not every player is capable of doing that."
The only real downside in Jones' jaw-dropping maturation is the effect it's had on veteran receiver Roddy White. Until this week, the Falcons had been the ultimate feel-good story, a squad that had won just 10 games the last two seasons and bonded under Quinn's direction. Then White told ESPN.com that he wasn't happy about the amount of touches he'd been getting in the offense so far (he entered 2015 averaging 76.5 catches per season, but has just six receptions this year). White claimed he was still concerned with the team first, but that wasn't the part of the story that made headlines.
It's quite likely that this matter will blow over, because White and Jones have a built a deep friendship over the years; in fact, White struck a more conciliatory tone in explaining his comments to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution later this week. Jones has benefitted from White's mentoring, and they've even made a point to vacation together routinely. The 33-year-old White had to know the day was coming when the 26-year-old Jones would surpass him as the most vital weapon in the Falcons' passing game. That's just the way these things work.
There's also little discussion about the gamble that brought them Jones in the first place. In fact, considering how Jones is performing this year, it looks like the Falcons landed something much closer to a bargain.