FLOWERY BRANCH — Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones, one of the team’s main cogs on offense, is running, and his recovery from October foot surgery is ahead of schedule.
“He’s doing a great job with (trainers) Marty (Lauzon) and A.J. (Neibel),” Falcons coach Mike Smith told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution by phone Wednesday from the NFL owner’s meetings in Orlando, Fla. “He’s continuing to progress.”
The Falcons, who were beset by a rash of major injuries last season, start their offseason training program April 21.
Smith is not sure if Jones will be cleared for offseason training or minicamp, but appears to be targeting training camp in late July as a possible return date.
“He’s progressing very well through his rehab,” Smith said. “The return to play is strictly going to be a decision that’s going to be made by the medical staff. I fully anticipate that long-term, he’s going to be ready to go.”
Jones was turning in a spectacular season when he suffered the foot injury in the fifth game, against the New York Jets on Oct. 7. He finished the game and was leading the NFL with 41 catches for 580 yards and two touchdowns.
He was on pace to catch 131 passes, which would have ranked second-best all-time. Indianapolis wide receiver Marvin Harrison had 143 receptions in 2002. The Falcons placed Jones on injured reserve Oct. 10. He stopped using crutches in December.
Jones’ surgery was the highest profile injury the team suffered. The onslaught of injuries contributed to the Falcons’ downfall from Super Bowl contender to a 4-12 team. Overall, the Falcons had projected starters miss 84 games last season.
Smith gave a medical update on other key members, who are rehabbing, saying “there have been no setbacks” among them.
All are expected back for next season and will compete for starting jobs.
Left tackle Sam Baker (left knee), who missed 12 games last season, is recovering well. Defensive end/linebacker Kroy Biermann suffered a torn Achilles tendon in the second game of the season and missed 14 starts. He has started to work on his rushes and pass drops.
“Kroy has been running on the field,” Smith said. “When I say running, I mean he’s working with the trainers on the field. So that’s a positive.”
Defensive tackle Corey Peters, who was heading into free agency, tore his Achilles in the 15th game. He re-signed a one-year deal, with incentives, to return.
“I think that Kroy will be able to give Corey some insight on what to expect,” Smith said. “I think, if you ever want to say there’s a positive for having an injury, to have someone that’s a few months ahead of him in the recovery can give him a lot of insight.”
Biermann and Peters have discussed their recovery.
“I do think that it is a positive that he’s going to be able to lean on Kroy for some insight,” Smith said. “Of course, he’ll have to listen to what the doctors say, but he can give him a little insight because he experienced it three months earlier.”
Mike Johnson, who was set to take over at right tackle last season before he suffered a dislocated left ankle and fractured fibula during a preseason practice with the Cincinnati Bengals, is working in the weight room and “progressing well,” Smith said.
The injury required surgery, and he was placed on injured reserve. The Falcons hoped that Johnson would be an athletic upgrade over the gritty Tyson Clabo, who was released last offseason.
Safety Zeke Motta, who started one game last season at free safety, is recovering from neck surgery.
“He is expected to have some follow-up (medical visits), and he could start having more activities,” Smith said. “He’s working with the trainers and in the weight room.”
While Smith is optimistic about all of the recoveries, he acknowledged that the team still has holes at free safety and tight end. He reminded that “the free-agency period is not over.”
“We’ve addressed some areas in free agency,” Smith said. “We will be … looking to calibrate our roster moving forward. We have a number of options and ways to do that.”