ATLANTA – Julio Jones leans forward in a hard-plastic, art-deco chair, looking more confident and assured than any man wearing pastel Capris in 2014 has a right to.
He's in a trendy downtown Atlanta studio within sight of his workplace, and he's taking a moment between beach-themed photo shoots to discuss the losses of the Atlanta Falcons' 2013 season both on the scoreboard and on the roster.
"It hurt, not being out there with my brothers," says Jones, who missed the last 11 games of the season with a broken foot. "It hurt not being able to help them. I did all I could, but there's only so much you can do on the sidelines."
It's not how the Falcons expected things would go when they mortgaged a decent chunk of their future to bring in Jones.
Prior to the 2011 draft, the Falcons dealt five picks over two drafts to the Cleveland Browns to move up and snag Jones, an enormous bounty that Jones had, until 2013, validated. He led all rookies in touchdowns in 2011, and was named to the Pro Bowl in 2012. As the 2013 season started, the Falcons were coming off a narrow NFC championship game loss, and Jones was projected as one of the top receivers in the NFL. Everything seemed aligned for another Atlanta run at a Super Bowl.
But just five games into the season, Jones learned one of the immutable lessons of the NFL: in Atlanta, expectation only leads to disaster. With the team 1-4, news came down that Jones had broken his foot against the New York Jets and would be lost for the year.
Harry Douglas (AP)
"I'm good," he says to lead off the interview, answering the first question everyone is going to ask about Atlanta in 2014. "I'm taking it one day at a time, but I'm good. I'm getting treatment every day, I'm out there with the team, going to meetings, everything but being on the field."
Jones has stayed out of OTAs to this point, but expects to be ready for training camp full-speed routes and contact. He's strengthened other parts of his body while waiting for his foot to heal, and expects that he'll regain his speed with little trouble.
The Falcons and Jones are both extraordinarily confident in Jones' Week 1 return, so much so that they're riding with their existing three-receiver set of Jones, Roddy White and Harry Douglas. If healthy, they're one of the best receiving trios in the league. No matter what, they're one of the loudest.
"Those guys are like my brothers," Jones says. "Harry's like my little brother. He's always ready to go at somebody for hitting him late or hitting him out of bounds. And Roddy's going to jump in no matter if Harry's right or wrong. I'm the guy that has to step in and say, 'Hang on, guys, let's get them on the scoreboard.'"
But Jones is quick to say that there's a lot the fans don't get about the Falcons' receivers. "You see us when we're having fun. What you don't see is us working out, working to get better. Me and Roddy, we were working out in January, before anyone got there. We don't want nobody to say that because you didn't [prepare], that's why you're not good."
(He ties in his recovery regimen with his new sponsorship of VitaCoco, a coconut water drink, saying that "I'm a natural guy. I don't take shakes or pills or anything. If you don't put that stuff in your body, your body doesn't crave that stuff. I started drinking this" - he holds up the VitaCoco liter carton he's been sipping from the whole interview - "several months ago, and it's helped me tremendously.")
Even if Jones returns at 110 percent of his old self, there's still a major weapon missing from the Falcons' offensive arsenal: tight end Tony Gonzalez, who retired at the end of last season still at or near the top of his game. Gonzalez was Matt Ryan's security blanket, a go-to option when all else seemed lost, but to hear Jones say it, the receiving corps will adjust just fine. As a side benefit, a healthy receiving crew means Ryan won't have to worry as much about a suspect offensive line that possessed all the stopping power of a matador last season.
"If Roddy and me are healthy and we do what we can do, we can get open," Jones says. "Matt won't need time. We'll be open. If they try to blitz Matt or double-team one of us, the other ones can burn you."
Bottom line: Jones is confident in this team because he's seen what can happen when everyone's clicking.
"We had so many injuries [last year], man," Jones says, referencing himself, White, and running back Steven Jackson, all of whom missed time due to injury. "It hurt so bad, having so many key players back. But I think we'll bounce back. We're the same team [that nearly won the NFC]. You don't need to reinvent the wheel. We'll be ready. We're there."
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