FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – This is what happens when you're the NFL's next great receiver: Julio Jones isn't in the Atlanta Falcons' locker room five seconds before the first member of the media approaches him looking for a quote. All around, Falcons of both new and aged vintage sit at their lockers, changing in solitude.
But Jones, all of 15 games into his NFL career (including the playoffs), has already become quite the celebrity. Getting tabbed before the season as a possible heir to Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald, and then delivering a two-touchdown performance in Week 1, will do that.
Slipping out of the clutches of the media in a locker room isn't exactly like evading an NFL secondary, even that of the Kansas City Chiefs. But Jones handles it like a practiced veteran, slipping off to where the Falcons' in-house chefs are preparing salmon and salad, but promising to come back for questions.
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Questions have surrounded Julio Jones ever since the 2011 NFL draft. And he's just starting to answer them.
Going five-for-one in a trade seems like the kind of deal you'd use to fleece a newbie fantasy owner who really, really wants to get Peyton Manning. But in the National Football League, if you go five draft picks for one, as the Falcons did in 2011 to move into position to draft Jones, you expect immediate results from your target.
Jones warrants inflated expectations. He began turning heads in 2006 as a high school junior, and drew interest from the kinds of schools you see at the top of the BCS standings. He finally committed to Alabama, and made an immediate impact. Just months after leaving Foley (Ala.) High School, he was starting for the Crimson Tide. He'd go on to win SEC Freshman of the Year for his 58-reception, 924-yard debut season. The next year, he'd play an integral role in Alabama's national championship. He'd conclude his three-year Tide run as a first-team All-SEC member, ranking among Alabama's career leaders in receptions, yards and touchdown catches.
Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff liked what he saw in Jones enough to move up 21 spots in the draft, a move that earned him withering criticism from the football-is-built-on-a-foundation-of-grunts crowd. And the Falcons did go from a 13-3 record and a No. 1 playoff seed in 2010 pre-Jones to a 10-6 record and a No. 5 slot (and an ugly 24-2 wild-card loss to the Giants) in 2011. Was the flashy pick of Jones costing Atlanta wins in the trenches?
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"I understand that if [the Jones deal] doesn't work out, I'll get my ass fried," Dimitroff said immediately after the draft. "But we really believe this is the ideal move for this organization in terms of where we are in our development. I'm not stressing about it at all."
Certainly, Jones held up his end of the deal, making 54 catches for 959 yards and eight touchdowns over 13 regular-season games in 2011. He ranked first or second (to Cincinnati's A.J. Green) in all three statistical categories among rookies.
Even so, when you're on a team that includes Pro Bowlers Matt Ryan, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez, you don't get excuses. And if you're projected as the fourth part of that puzzle coming into the 2012 season, you don't get to hide.
If you're going to be a marquee wide receiver in the National Football League, you need an ego big enough to blanket the field. Seriously, no happy-to-be-here, just-part-of-the-team nonsense allowed. You're the accelerator in a six-figure sports car, not the cupholder. And right from the opening bell of 2012, Jones warmed to the role. When Yahoo! Sports' Michael Silver asked Jones how defenses would play him and the rest of the Falcons, he had a classic answer:
"You know what I would do? Just pack up my stuff and go home," Jones laughed. "I mean, who are you gonna double? Tony? Roddy? Me? That's six people. What are you gonna do?"
What, indeed? The Chiefs couldn't solve Jones; he broke free for 108 yards and two touchdowns. Jones' teammates say that the difference between the talented but raw rookie in 2011 and the spotlight performer in 2012 is a product of preparation.
"He's more comfortable within our offense," Ryan says. "He has a better understanding of how to run routes. His route-running has been really good from Game 1 of the preseason through Game 1 of the regular season. It's been spot-on."
"That's half the battle in the NFL," White says. "People don't see us reading coverages and understanding our responsibility during route-running. Once you get that down, you can start to play fast. You can let your athletic ability take over."
So how good can Jones be? We're far too early in the season to take any kind of representative sample, but everyone watching the kid from Foley thinks he's got the tools to get his jersey raised to the Georgia Dome rafters.
"He'll be a Pro Bowler," White says, "no doubt about that."
"I think he can be as good as anybody," Ryan says. "He's smart. He works really, really hard. He's got an unbelievable physical skill set. He's capable of being the very best."
When Jones finishes his hot tub session, he's got less than two minutes – the time left in the open interview session – to speak. He answers question after question about Denver's cornerbacks and how old he was back when Peyton Manning started his NFL career ("I was young.") with a smile and a quick, practiced answer. Like everyone else in this locker room, he's more than happy to put the stench of that Giants playoff loss behind him.
"This is a new year," he says. "We feel like we can win every week. But we've got to go out there and play Falcon football."
It's now his job to make sure that's a threat, not a punch line.
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