Every game, it becomes more and more apparent why the Atlanta Falcons traded up to two years
ago to draft receiver Julio Jones, who has emerged as arguably the team’s most dangerous receiver.
WHO: Bucs (6-9) at Falcons (13-2).
WHAT: Regular-season finale for both teams.
WHEN: 1 p.m. Sunday.
LINE: OFF (oddsmakers waiting to see how many starters Atlanta rests before setting line since Falcons have No. 1 seed in NFC already clinched).
FLOWERY BRANCH — Julio Jones isn’t interested in discussing his accomplishments.
Bravado isn’t his style.
“I’ve been like this my whole life,” Jones said recently. “This is the way I am.”
Jones’ transformation into a professional receiver with the Atlanta Falcons started at Alabama, where Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban enforced a businesslike approach to practice and film study.
But Jones, who was named to his first Pro Bowl on Wednesday, said he was soft-spoken long before he signed a scholarship with the Tide.
Growing up in the small town of Foley, Ala. — about 25 miles southeast of Mobile and 10 miles from the Gulf of Mexico — Jones learned at an early age that performance meant far more to him than words.
“You let your play do the talking out there on the field, man,” Jones said. “I’m not going to say anything negative about the next man I’m going against, you know? I’m just going to go out there and give it my all for 60 minutes.”
When the Atlanta Falcons (13-2) face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-5) on Sunday in both teams’ regular-season finales, Jones will take one more step toward moving into a bigger role as quarterback Matt Ryan’s top target.
Roddy White, the team’s leading receiver, has battled a sore right knee for much of the season, and that’s paved the way for Jones to have a breakout second season.
The second-year wideout says he is prepared for the challenge heading into Sunday’s regular-season finale. But don’t expect Jones to pound his chest or do some fancy dance in the end zone on his way there.
“I just go out there and try to perform and be consistent for this organization,” Jones said. “Especially being in the NFL, it’s all about consistency and working hard. Everybody is athletic here in the NFL. It’s all about continuing to try to get better.”
As the NFL’s sixth overall draft pick last year, Jones was scrutinized as a golden child of sorts.
Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff sent Atlanta’s No. 27 spot in the first round to Cleveland and gave the Browns a second- and fourth-round pick in 2011 and a first- and fourth-round spot this year to acquire the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Jones.
Despite missing three games last season with hamstring injuries, Jones averaged 17.8 yards and scored eight touchdowns on 54 catches.
Through 16 games this year, Jones has 76 catches for 1,124 yards and 10 touchdowns — but the statistics mean very little to him in the context of his team’s success.
“It’s never affected me,” Jones said. “I just go out there and play. I told you before. I can’t go out there and be Superman, you know? They traded up to get me and everything because they see the potential.”
The 23-year-old Jones even decided during the offseason to give himself a new look, too, cutting off his beloved dreadlocks and donating the effort to “Locks of Love,” a national cancer charity.
The haircut, he soon believed, better fit his straight-man persona. Plus, Jones said he wanted no part of trying to match the outspoken White, a four-time Pro Bowl selection who rarely lets his swagger down in conversation.
“What I appreciate about Julio is that he listens and tries to get better every day,” Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said. “He listens to what (receivers coach) Terry (Robiskie) tells him, and I think Julio is influenced by Roddy and Matt, two really good role models that are teammates, and what those guys say to him. I think Julio has become a much more consistent player throughout this year.
“When he’s healthy, he’s a guy that you think can break the game open at any time.”
Jones appreciates, though, how the fun-loving White showed him how to succeed on the field without letting the job become tedious.
It has helped, too, having 16th-year tight end Tony Gonzalez, the NFL’s No. 2 career-leaving receiver, as a teammate.
“Maybe on a lot of teams, if you’re the No. 1 guy, you could be bored with it, you know?” Jones said. “But here you’ve got all these guys to keep you up, and they tell you to keep pushing. Especially coming from a Hall of Fame tight end like Tony — he’s been in the game so long and he keeps doing it.”
Jones still marvels at how hard the 36-year-old Gonzalez works in practice.
“It shows you the way not to be bored out there and keep getting better,” he said. “Catch balls, catch balls. Muscle memory.”