Atlanta Falcons Potential Breakout Player of 2012: Julio Jones

The great thing about the NFL is that there are so many positions that every year, there is almost always at least one player who has a breakout year on every team, no matter how good or bad the team is. This is the part in a 32 part segment detailing one potential breakout player for the 2012 NFL season on each NFL team. For the Atlanta Falcons, that player is wide receiver Julio Jones.

I didn’t want to do Julio Jones for the Falcons because everyone is projecting a breakout year for him, but I’ve been on the Julio Jones hype train all offseason, so he’s the pick here. Just know that I thought he’d be great before everyone else did, even if it makes me a football hipster for saying that (which probably means I’ll have to hate myself because I hate hipsters).

As a rookie in a lockout shortened season, Jones still managed 54 catches for 959 yards and 8 touchdowns in 13 games, despite battling hamstring problems all year. Over 16 games, that’s 66 catches for 1180 yards and 10 touchdowns. Those numbers alone would be enough to count as a breakout season for him, but I’m not done.

I don’t think people understand just how impressive what Jones did as a rookie last year in 13 games was. Discounting Jones and AJ Green (another insanely talented receiver and another outlier), since the 2005 NFL Draft, 22 receivers have gone in the 1st round of the NFL Draft. In their rookie years, they have averaged 37 catches for 524 yards and 3 touchdowns. The leader in rookie production among those 22, strangely Dwayne Bowe, who caught 70 passes for 995 yards and 5 touchdowns in 2007.

And this is not a group of busts. This group includes, among others, Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Michael Crabtree, Percy Harvin, Hakeem Nicks, Jeremy Maclin, Kenny Britt, Calvin Johnson, Dwayne Bowe, Robert Meachem, Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards, and Roddy White. Rookie receivers aren’t supposed to be able to do what Jones did last season, especially not in just 13 games as his team’s secondary target (two reasons why I think his rookie year was more impressive than Green, who only had 11 more catches, 88 more yards, and actually 2 fewer touchdowns, despite 20 more targets).

He’s coming off his first full offseason, fully healthy, which he wasn’t last season, his team will be passing more overall this season, and he’ll become the focal point of the offense with Roddy White aging opposite him and a new downfield offense being implemented. Last year, he managed just 7.0 targets per game, as opposed to 10.9 for Roddy White. If that number jumps to 8.5 for him this season, and he plays 16 games and maintains last year’s rates, he’d have 80 catches for 1433 yards and 12 touchdowns and that’s just 1.5 more targets per game, completely reasonable.

Including playoffs, he was targeted 8.5 times per game over his last 6 games last season and he caught 31 passes for 525 yards and 6 touchdowns, while extrapolates to 83 catches for 1400 yards and 16 touchdowns over 16 games. Now you can argue that he probably won’t maintain his same rates, especially not his 17.8 YPC rate, and that he might not play 16 games.

However, Calvin Johnson’s 2nd year stats, 78 catches for 1331 yards and 12 touchdowns, are totally reasonable for him. This guy caught 6 passes for 109 yards and a score in a QUARTER in his 1st preseason game. He’s an incredibly talented receiver and when the season is over, he won’t have just made his 1st Pro Bowl, he’ll get his name mentioned with Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald as the top-3 receivers in the league, pushing out an aging Andre Johnson (only slightly). What the Falcons gave up to trade up for him in the 2011 NFL Draft was not too much to pay for this kid.

If you’re interested in doing a fantasy football league with me, here’s the link (no draft date set yet, currently standard, with the option to become PPR with group vote). http://msn.foxsports.com/fantasy/football/commissioner/Registration/Private.aspx?league=55086&password=FanSpot2

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