Hard work paying off for Julio Jones, Falcons
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- For Julio Jones, who is making life miserable for the team's young defensive backs, life couldn't be better. After making his first Pro Bowl appearance in his second season in 2012, the wide receiver picked up his first national endorsement deal in the offseason. He appears in a commercial with Houston Texans running back Arian Foster. He also made a cameo in a cable television show. Jones also realizes he could have succumbed to misfortune, as Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Jeremy Maclin has with a torn ACL that already has ended Maclin's season.
All in all, things could be much worse than the everyday tedium of training camp -- which Jones seems to enjoy. "Everything's going great," said Jones, who then threw a verbal bouquet in the direction of cornerback Desmond Trufant, the team's first-round draft pick, whom Jones has victimized a number of times during offseason team activities, minicamp and now in training camp. "Even the young guys. Trufant stepped up and made a couple of plays on me. He's doing well over there. It's been going pretty good. No crazy injuries. A lot of injuries going on in the league and, fortunately enough, we haven't had any." Missing three games because of injury as a rookie in 2011 prevented Jones from reaching the 1,000-yard threshold. But he played in all 16 games last season and caught 79 balls for 1,198 yards and 10 touchdowns. Now, even head coach Mike Smith, who speaks as modestly as they come, will say that Jones and Roddy White, the team's all-time leader in almost every receiving category, form "arguably" the league's top wide receiver tandem. Jones' performance last season has set high expectations this season. "We anticipate that there'll be a maturation process where he'll continue to grow," Smith said of Jones. "When you're at the level he's at, who knows how high the ceiling is. But it's his third year. He and (quarterback Matt Ryan) have been together. We've got a lot of weapons and, again, a lot of it's going to depend on how people try to defend us and that will change from week to week and that's a fun thing for not only Julio but our offensive staff and our offensive players." All of those weapons that Smith referred to is one of the reasons why tight end Tony Gonzalez agreed not to retire but to return for a 17th and what he is saying will be a final season. With the addition of running back Steven Jackson and that maturation process for Jones, the Falcons expect their offense to carry them to the top of the league. Jones said now that he's in his third season with the Falcons, he knows what he has to do as soon as Ryan calls a play and he's able to read defenses better. But he's not resting on his laurels. "I know I can improve on every level," Jones said. "Running routes, getting open." Smith called Jones one of the "hardest-working" players on the Falcons. The coach said it was a trait the Falcons noticed early on when scouting Jones, which is why they gave up so much to trade up and draft him sixth overall in 2011. "I've been doing that since I was 12 years old," Jones said. "I've been very successful in football from Pop Warner, high school, college, even now. You can be as talented as you want to be but you just got to have that work ethic and no one's going to put that work ethic in like me." It's a lesson that Trufant and cornerback Robert Alford, the Falcons' second-round pick, are learning the hard way. "When I go out there and put the helmet on, it's time to go to work," Jones said. “I really don't care who's in front of me. I just try to work and I think that's helping the younger guys, too. Me just going out there and playing Julio and being me, not bringing it down a level. I'm trying to make them -- I'm raising the bar for them and trying to make them bring their play up to my level." And bringing up his own level in the process. Notes: Smith said second-year fullback Bradie Ewing, who missed all of last season because of a knee injury, and running back Antone Smith would miss five to 10 days because of injuries. Smith would not specify their injuries but neither practiced on Tuesday. Also, undrafted rookie cornerback Saeed Lee appeared to suffer a serious injury to his right leg during non-contact drills. He required medical attention and then needed the help of two members of the team's training staff to get to the locker room. Smith did not have an update on Lee.