FALCONS NOTEBOOK: Jones returns to practice for Atlanta

Falcons star receiver Julio Jones is back in practice after sitting out the team’s first exhibition game with two tight hamstrings. (Reuters News Service)

Falcons star receiver Julio Jones is back in practice after sitting out the team’s first exhibition game with two tight hamstrings. (Reuters News Service)

ATLANTA — Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones, who was held out of the exhibition-season opener against Cincinnati with two tight hamstrings, returned to practice Saturday.

“Julio was out running some routes,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “He did some work. He didn’t take a full load.”

Jones was held out of the game against the Bengals for precautionary reasons. He’s on target to play against Baltimore on Thursday.

“I would imagine in the next day or two, he’ll probably be back to full participation,” Smith said on Saturday.

Linebacker Robert James, who had an undisclosed injury, did not practice.

Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (dislocated finger), fullback Bradie Ewing (undisclosed injury) and running back Antone Smith (undisclosed injury), all previously injured, did not practice.

“Our No. 1 goal is to evaluate these guys, but make sure that we get them healthy to the first game,” Smith said. “We were able to accomplish that in the first game.”

Super bowl contenders

ESPN Insider Bill Polian, a six-time winner of the NFL’s executive of the year award, believes the Falcons are legitimate Super Bowl contenders.

He was asked about Tampa Bay, but ended up analyzing the NFC South.

“Atlanta is what they are; they’re a bona fide Super Bowl contender,” Polian said in a conference call Friday.

He expects the Saints to also be much-improved.

“There’s no question that New Orleans has improved simply because (coach) Sean (Payton) is back and because of how much he means to that franchise,” Polian said.

Polian is not ready to write off the Panthers.

“Carolina has the capacity to be a pretty good team,” he said.

But what about Tampa Bay?

“Well,” Polian said. “(They are) getting younger, better players. That’s No. 1. Second, I think you have to know how you want to play, and I think Greg Schiano does know that and is implementing that. They’re in a very tough division.”

Davis rates himself

The Falcons have elected not to sign a veteran backup quarterback behind Matt Ryan.

Dominique Davis is the No. 2 right now, and he had a shaky debut against the Bengals.

Davis, who signed as an undrafted free agent out of East Carolina in 2012, completed eight of 19 passes for 78 yards, one touchdown and an interception.

“I’m hard on myself,” Davis said. “I’m my biggest critic, and I think I played horrible.”

Davis’ interception throw was ill-advised. He was running toward the sideline, jumped and threw back into the middle of the field.

“In the first half, that pick I threw was just a dumb decision, but I got to keep pushing through,” Davis said. “I got to keep playing football, and I’m glad I came back that second half and got a drive together and got a touchdown.

There’s a lot of room for improvement.”

Falcons’ flex defense

Against the Bengals, the Falcons opened in a 3-4 alignment, but played mostly a 4-3 over the duration of the game.

Smith said the defense needs to be flexible when facing several styles of offenses.

“We’ve got some personnel that are playing in different positions,” Smith said. “Again, we want to have as much flexibility as we possibly can. It gives us as a coaching staff the ability to work on the proper type of matchups.”