Tuesday, October 8, 2013
Falcons must move on without Julio Jones
By Vaughn McClure
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The solemn tone of Mike Smith's voice told the story.
As much as the Atlanta Falcons head coach tried to remain upbeat, you could tell how devastated he was about top receiver Julio Jones possibly being sidelined for the rest of the season with a foot injury.
"The first diagnosis was not that encouraging," Smith said.
Jones will get a second opinion in Charlotte on Wednesday with hopes of receiving positive news. He apparently fractured the same foot in 2011, an injury discovered at the NFL combine following Jones' career at Alabama. Smith would not discuss details about which foot Jones re-injured.
Jones seems to be staring at an extended recovery time regardless of his latest foot issue. The team has come to grips with reality: A 1-4 start to the season just became much more miserable.
Losing Jones for the season would rob Matt Ryan of his top vertical threat. Losing Jones for the season would make the Falcons' offense that much less dynamic. Losing Jones for the season would allow opposing defenses to play a normal scheme rather than dedicate an extra defender to one of the league's most explosive weapons.
"He's going to be a hard guy to replace, if we have to replace him," Smith said.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, Jones has 15 catches for at least 40 yards over the last three seasons, third-best in the NFL behind Calvin Johnson and A.J. Green (16 each). Jones currently leads the league with 41 receptions and is second in both receiving yards (580) and yards after the catch (248).
Not to mention the toughness the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Jones brings to the lineup. He has battled a nagging knee issue throughout the season. Then in a Week 4 loss to New England, Jones went down with what he thought was a significant leg injury after absorbing a hit from Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty.
The Falcons will likely have to find a way to move on without leading receiver Julio Jones.
Guess what? Jones returned to action -- against the medical staff's wishes -- and responded with an acrobatic 49-yard catch in traffic.
"He's a great player for us," Ryan said last week of Jones. "We know he's a competitor. That's one thing that's been consistent since he's been here. He'll go out there and compete for 60 minutes. And he'll make plays even when he's not at 100 percent."
Jones displayed the same toughness Monday night. Smith refused to identify exactly when his player sustained the injury, but Jones got banged up before he made a dramatic, 46-yard one-handed catch with 5 minutes, 35 seconds left in regulation.
So where do the Falcons go from here? Jones is one of the few receivers who is in the same stratosphere as "Megatron." Now that Jones is grounded, the Falcons have to find a way to transform.
The simplest solution would be to expect more from Roddy White, the guy who brought three consecutive 90-plus-catch, 1,000-plus-receiving-yard seasons into 2013. The problem is, White left Monday night's game with a hamstring injury and never returned. Smith declined to provide an update on White's status. Plus White had been battling a high-ankle sprain already.
Harry Douglas would move into Jones' position on the depth chart, but the 6-foot, 183-pound Douglas is more of a possession receiver and doesn't have the same speed and height to fill Jones' void.
Drew Davis (6-1, 204) and Kevin Cone (6-2, 216) are the other receivers currently on the active roster. Cone made a nice 12-yard catch against the Jets while Davis has been limited by an ankle injury.
Smith talked about looking at "all options" in terms of making roster moves. The Falcons have two receivers on the practice squad: James Rodgers (5-7, 188) and rookie Darius Johnson (5-10, 175).
Although general manager Thomas Dimitroff traded five draft picks to select Jones, it remains unclear if he is investigating a trade for a receiver before the Oct. 29 trade deadline.
There are a few free-agent receivers worth looking at, such as Brandon Lloyd and Devin Aromashodu, to name a couple. Browns receiver Josh Gordon's name has surfaced as trade bait, but would the Falcons give up a second-round pick for a player with character concerns?
The Falcons have about $3.5 million in cap space to work with, about the same cushion teams usually like to carry in case of injuries. Jones would be the eighth Falcon placed on season-ending injured reserve if his injury is as serious as expected.
More than anything, Ryan has to be able to work with the weapons he has at his disposal right now, regardless of Jones' status. Ryan has developed a rhythm with veteran Tony Gonzalez, who seems to have no desire to finish his career anywhere else than Atlanta. Rookie tight end Levine Toilolo, who caught a touchdown against the Jets, could be more of a target now, too, at 6-foot-8.
Remember, Jets coach Rex Ryan said Matt Ryan is on the cusp of joining Peyton Manning and Tom Brady among the elite quarterbacks. Brady tore the Falcons apart with unheralded receivers.
Without Jones and with White hobbled, Ryan might have to do the same.