Panthers coach Ron Rivera has joked a couple of times this week that he hopes Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez retires soon so he is no longer the Panthers’ problem twice a year.
But even if the 16-year veteran decides to hang it up in the near future, the Falcons are grooming another, potentially more potent, offensive threat for quarterback Matt Ryan.
Second-year receiver Julio Jones has turned heads in just 16 career games. After leading all rookies with eight receiving touchdowns, and placing second among the first-year receivers in yards (959) and receptions (54), Jones has emerged as the big-play threat the Falcons hoped he would be when they drafted him in 2011.
“He didn’t have an offseason so I think that he’s much more comfortable this year than last year just in terms of how we do things and how the NFL works, the sequences in practices, how the offseason goes,” Atlanta coach Mike Smith said. “Julio is a very talented receiver and he’s learning a lot in my mind from two really good receivers in Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez. They’re great mentors for him.”
The sixth overall selection out of Alabama, Jones was so coveted by Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff that Atlanta sent five draft picks – three in 2011 and two in 2012 – to the Cleveland Browns to move up from their spot at No. 27.
Jones has been one of Ryan’s top targets this season. His 189 yards on 15 catches is third on the team behind White and Gonzalez, and his three receiving touchdowns are tied for the team high with Gonzalez.
“He was the sixth pick in the draft for a reason: because he’s a dynamic football player,” Rivera said. “He has the size-speed ratio that you want at that position. I also think that the big thing that’s helped him is that quarterback. They have the whole package right now. They have the quarterback, they have the running game, and they have dynamic receivers and a tight end around them.
“We’re (in Carolina) trying to build that and get to that and we believe as our quarterback improves and matures as a football player we can become one of those types of offenses. When you get to that point when you bring in a player of that talent, his rise or his development is a lot quicker than people expected.”
The Panthers have been able to construct a similar offensive package through the draft just like Atlanta. Both squads have seven offensive players who were drafted by the team, and wide receiver Brandon LaFell is one of those seven for the Panthers.
When he was drafted in 2010, the third-year wideout wasn’t as sought after as Jones, but LaFell has been able to play as an effective No. 2 receiver through the early part of the season.
“I think Brandon is showing some really good things in the first three weeks,” Smith said. “I’ve been very impressed with him and the 18.2 yards per catch. He’s a very good football player. He lines up opposite of who I think is one of the best receivers of all time, Steve Smith, and probably the number one competitor of any receiver I’ve had to coach against.”
Jones has played across from Roddy White since entering the league. White, a four-time Pro Bowler, has caught more passes (234) since the start of the 2010 season than any other player in the NFL.
Still, LaFell said when the Panthers turn on the film, Jones hardly looks like Ryan’s second option.
“Ah man, he’s been what they expected from day one,” LaFell said. “They drafted him earlier and gave away a lot of draft picks, but at the end of the day he’s been performing. Right now he’s come into his own and he pretty much looks like their No. 1 receiver out there when we look at film of this guy. He’s going out there making plays and being very physical.”