In his third year out of Alabama, Julio Jones is emerging as the Falcons’ best receiver. He showed up to camp this year trim and looker fitter than ever thanks to a new diet.
ATLANTA — Pro Football Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders was an interested onlooker at the Falcons' practice Friday.
He's in town for a youth football weekend and made a point of bringing the teams out to visit the Falcons, where he also did some preparation work for his in-season job with the NFL Network.
Sanders, 45, who started his career with the Falcons after being selected with the fifth overall pick in the 1989 draft out of Florida State, and went on to play for four other teams. Sanders, an eight-time Pro Bowler and two-time Super Bowl winner, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011.
While on the field with the coaches, Sanders studied Falcons rookie cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, who to the casual fans watching the open practice on the hill appeared to struggle.
After chatting with coach Mike Smith about the team and the young corners, Sanders granted an exclusive interview to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“I like them,” Sanders said. “They are aggressive corners. They are going to make some mistakes. They are going to do a lot of things right as well.”
Trufant and Alford showed they are not used to the speed of NFL receivers. They both were beat on some deep passes while Sanders watched.
Fans on the hill were tweeting about the plays and some were alarmed. Sanders was not.
“It's a maturation process,” Sanders said. “Thank God, (the Falcons) have a great offense that will afford them the chance to mature without every play being a matter of life and death.”
Sanders was fine with Trufant, the team's top pick, requesting to wear his No. 21 jersey.
“That's a sign of respect, first and foremost,” Sanders said. “I like the kid. I really do. I like both of them. (Alford) is nice. It's hard to see which one is the best. You can't go by where they were drafted at. These guys are on an even keel. They are good young corners. They have a tremendous upside."
Trufant was the 22nd player taken in the draft. Alford played at Southeastern Louisiana, an FCS college, and was taken in the second round (60th overall).
The Falcons made a major draft-day trade with the St. Louis Rams to move up seven spots in the first round to select Trufant.
After letting three of their top five cornerbacks leave after last season, the Falcons needed to restock the position. They were high on Trufant, who starred at the University of Washington and comes from a NFL football-playing family.
Trufant, who's 6-foot, 190 pounds, ran the 40-yard dash in 4.38 seconds at the NFL scouting combine. Alford, who's 6-foot, 186-pounds, ran the 40-yard dash in 4.39 seconds.
Trufant is expected to compete for the starting right cornerback position. Alford is not out of the picture and could earn time in the revamped secondary.
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan also believes the young corners have had a good start to camp.
“They are doing a great job,” Ryan said. “That's part of playing that position. You are going to get beat from time to time, especially against the guys that we have. They made some plays out there (Friday)."
Ryan pointed to some specific plays.
“For lack of a better word, they (ticked) me off a little bit a couple of times,” Ryan said. “They tipped the ball around. Trufant had a nice interception along the left sideline earlier. I like what I've seen out of them.
“They are doing a great job. I'm fired up that we have them. They both have a lot of swagger, and they talk. I like that. I like that from defensive guys. I think they fit in really well, and I think they will do a great job.”
Trufant seemed to struggle early in practice. Alford was beaten on the last two plays, first by Julio Jones and then by Roddy White.
“Those young corners are going to be learning under fire,” Smith said. "Every play is a learning experience for them, and they've got to put previous play behind them and move on. That's what a corner has to do. They are going against two of the best wide receivers in the NFL.”
JONES IMPRESSES EARLY IN CAMP:
ATLANTA — A regular sight during the first two days of Falcons training camp was Julio Jones gliding up and down the field making difficult plays look effortless and defenders look silly.
Jones has started camp doing many of the same things he did while earning his first Pro Bowl selection in 2012, his second NFL season. Already a rare combination of size and speed, Jones spent the offseason slimming down with a diet heavy on chicken, turkey and vegetables and appears even quicker.
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said Jones is ready to take another step.
“Man, he just continues to get better,” Ryan said. “He's coming into his third year. I think he's really starting to come into his own in terms of his confidence and understanding what we are doing offensively."
Jones had 79 receptions for 1,198 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. His threat to go deep for passes affected the way opponents defended the Falcons and allowed him to be effective on screen passes because defenders had to give him a cushion.
Any increase in speed for Jones will make him even more difficult to defend. Ryan said there's been a mental change with Jones, too.
“When guys stop thinking out there and they just play, they change,” Ryan said. “He's not thinking out there very much right now. He knows what he's doing, and he's going out there and he's making plays. I think he is in a good spot.”
No problem, Gonzo: Soon Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez will leave training camp and return home to California to be with his son for his first year playing youth football. Gonzalez and coach Mike Smith made the arrangement before Gonzalez decided to put off retirement and return for a 17th season.
Ryan said he doesn't think Gonzalez's time away will affect his preparation or the team's chemistry in the passing game.
“He always maintains his shape really, really well,” Ryan said. “He and I have a great rapport. We've worked together a lot. I was out in California prior to training camp to get some work in (for) a couple days. That time and the last couple of days and then when he gets back will be plenty of time. It's not an issue at all.”
When Gonzalez leaves camp, three other tight ends on the roster likely will vie for time with the starting group: Chase Coffman, Tommy Gallarda and rookie Levine Toilolo. Coffman and Gallarda have served as Falcons backups, and the team selected Toilolo in the fourth round of the draft.
Those three players have a combined four years of NFL experience, compared with Gonzalez's 16.
“I think it's a great opportunity for those guys,” Ryan said. “And they are all hard workers, and they all do a good job. It will be interesting to see how things shake out the next couple of weeks.”
Good start: Smith said he's pleased with the team's preparation for camp.
“One of things I was most impressed with (this week) was the mental part of it,” he said. “They have done a great job, especially the young guys, retaining what they learned in OTAs and minicamp. I'm pleasantly surprised with the lack of mental errors that we've had in the first two practices.”
Super team?: Former Falcons star Deion Sanders was at practice Friday along with youth football teams that he sponsors in metro Atlanta and Texas. He praised the Falcons' organization and said the team should have only one goal.
"These guys are pretty much in a situation where it's Super Bowl or not," Sanders said. "That's where they are. They have a quarterback that is stable, that's poised. He's a veteran. He received what he earned (in a new contract), and I'm happy for him. I think for this team, it's Super Bowl or bust, and I think they can get there.”
Etc.: The Falcons signed receiver Marcus Sales, a rookie free agent out of Syracuse. Sales tried out during the Falcons' rookie minicamp. ... Smith said the Falcons will have their first practice in pads Sunday. They won't have their usual morning walk-through before the 3:30 session. ... The Falcons were able to get in the entire practice session Friday in spite of threatening weather. “I did hear thunder,” Smith said. “When I checked it was more than 11 miles away, so we were in good shape. I was a little concerned about it happening, but we got it done.”