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Thursday, May 5, 2011

Falcons paid a ransom for Julio Jones; will payoff be Super?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

To pull off the most stunning move of the 2011 NFL Draft, the Atlanta Falcons were essentially on the clock for a month.

  • The Falcons traded up 21 spots in the first round to select Julio Jones with the sixth overall pick.

    By Gregory Smith, AP

    The Falcons traded up 21 spots in the first round to select Julio Jones with the sixth overall pick.

By Gregory Smith, AP

The Falcons traded up 21 spots in the first round to select Julio Jones with the sixth overall pick.

You want Julio Jones?

It is going to cost you. Tremendously.

The Falcons ponied up five picks — including a first-round pick and fourth-rounder in 2012, plus second- and fourth-round picks and their 27th slot this year — for the right to move into the Cleveland Browns' slot and select the Alabama star sixth overall.

Not quite the result of some sudden hunch in the War Room.

"This was a decision that obviously didn't come on the clock when we were caught up in the moment," Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff explained the day after swinging a deal that drew comparisons to historic deals of the past that involved Herschel Walker and Ricky Williams. "We discussed it for over a month."

Step inside Dimitroff's shoes for a minute. He's had a solid mark in his first three years as a GM, making the right call on Matt Ryan, Tony Gonzalez and Michael Turner, among others. He's teamed with coach Mike Smith to turn around a franchise that was flattened before his arrival by the Michael Vick fiasco and Bobby Petrino's blindside bolt as coach.

He has earned trust.

Before Dimitroff and Smith came, the Falcons had never posted back-to-back winning seasons in the franchise's history. Now they're three-for-three for winning campaigns.

Still, trading so much to get a receiver that high in the draft can be risky.

Remember, Charles Rogers, Mike Williams, Reggie Williams and Troy Williamson were top-10 picks.

Makes sense to run this one past the big Bird, uh, big boss, that is Falcons owner Arthur Blank. Dimitroff, looking to add explosiveness to his efficient offense, targeted Jones and another receiver — Georgia's A.J. Green — as Priority One for this year's draft.

Blank barely blinked at the cost for such an aggressive move.

"Arthur is a very intuitive man," Dimitroff said. "He asks a lot of questions. And they were very pointed questions. We had some very healthy discussion for a month."

The result even shocked Jones. He had little pre-draft contact with the Falcons.

"They came in, short-notice, at the University of Alabama ," he recalled of a pre-draft visit. "That was it. You know, I lost contact with them. I'm just very excited that they had that much trust to get me. I don't want to disappoint them."

When someone mentioned the high price the Falcons paid, Jones said, "That says a lot about them, and what they see in me."


The Falcons earned the NFC's top playoff seed last season with a 13-3 regular-season finish, then promptly squandered their home-field advantage.

They were drilled by the Green Bay Packers, 48-21, a loss that not only revealed holes in a defense that was shredded for 366 yards and three TD passes by Aaron Rodgers, but also showed a comparative lack of firepower.

Sure, the Falcons offense is guided by a steady hand with the cool Ryan and has a dependable running game powered by Turner. Their all-pro receiver, Roddy White, led the NFL with 115 receptions in 2010 and set a franchise record with 1,389 receiving yards.

What's wrong with that picture?

The Falcons ranked next-to-last in the NFL with 32 receptions of 20-plus yards — the so-called "explosive" plays that can crush the spirit of a defense. White, for all of his brilliance, averaged a career-low 12.1 yards per catch last season. Ryan, for his coolness, quarterbacked an offense that ranked 25th in the NFL with 6.46 yards per pass attempt.

Wanted: A gamebreaking receiver.

Enter Jones, who clocked at 4.34 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the combine and has a 40-inch vertical leap. As a junior in the Crimson Tide's balanced attack last season, he caught 78 passes for 1,133 yards and seven TDs — impressive but not eye-popping statistics, yet underlying a complete package.

There are no readily available stats for crackback blocks, but Jones has plenty of those. He has also drawn raves for his demeanor, leadership and responsible approach.

"He's ultra-competitive about the game," Dimitroff added.

One clue about Jones' makeup as a football player surfaced during the combine, when someone asked him to name an NFL player whose style reflects his game.

Larry Fitzgerald? Andre Johnson? Chad Ochocinco?

Jones didn't dare compare himself to a receiver.

His response: Ray Lewis.

It said much about how the passionate Jones views himself as a football player — a receiver with a linebacker's mentality — and why the Falcons clamored to get him.

"There is no diva aspect to Julio Jones," Dimitroff says. "He is 100% football player."

Dimitroff undoubtedly sees Jones as a player to help the Falcons get to the next level. But he is quick to declare that Jones was not the final piece of the puzzle.

"In no way are we suggesting that we're one player away," said Dimitroff, who also traded up 13 spots in the fifth round to draft an explosive third-down back, Oregon State 's Jacquizz Rodgers. "But we realize that to stay in the games with teams like Green Bay, we're going to have to match their offense.

"And we also know that we need to ramp up our pressure on the passer."

In many mock drafts, the Falcons were projected to select a defensive end in the first round to address their need for a better pass rush. That they failed to do so drew draft-analysis criticism. The rest of the static was about the price for Jones.

Did they pay too much?

The rebuilding Browns were motivated in needing more players to stock their roster. Dimitroff added, "It was pretty balanced, if you consider the trade chart."

Ah, the universal trade value chart. According to its meter, the sixth overall pick is worth 1,600 points. The picks the Browns received are worth 1,766 points, when assigning the points for the 2012 picks with the worth they would be in the 2011 slots.

Said Dimitroff, "We knew it was going to be costly."

Time, ultimately, will reveal whether Julio Jones was worth the cost.


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