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Here’s An Idea, Falcons: Throw To Julio Jones In The Red Zone

Julio Jones is unlike most other star receivers. He doesn’t scream at his quarterback or sulk or throw a tantrum when passes don’t come his way. He’s happy to share the wealth with his teammates. In short, he’s no diva.

But if any NFL wide receiver has earned the right to complain on the sidelines, it’s Jones. The Falcons star hasn’t scored a touchdown this season — and in fact has underperformed his whole career when it comes to scoring. His touchdown rate has never come close to matching his outsized production everywhere else on the field. So maybe the Falcons — who have scored just 17 points in each of their past two games (both losses) heading into their Super Bowl rematch with the Patriots on Sunday — would actually benefit from Jones flipping a Gatorade cooler or two.

Since 2014, Jones has been nothing short of unstoppable. He’s been the NFL’s most productive receiver when measured by yards per game, the second best in terms of receptions per game and the third best in yards per target.1 In those three-plus seasons, he’s averaging 104.8 yards but a ho-hum 0.4 touchdowns per game, which is roughly the same as less-heralded wideouts such as Allen Hurns, Emmanuel Sanders and Jordan Matthews. For an elite receiver, Jones is solidly middle-of-the-pack in touchdown production:

The 51 receivers on the chart above average a scoring strike every 157.1 yards. Jones averages a TD for every 262 yards he accumulates, which is the third most extreme discrepancy in the sample.2 The Dallas Cowboys’ Dez Bryant, meanwhile, leads all receivers in fewest yards per touchdown, 92.7, but that’s probably no accident: Bryant has long made it clear that he expects a big portion of the touchdown glory — or someone, possibly everyone, is going to hear about it.

Jones’s scoring woes almost defy explanation. Receivers who thirst for touchdowns are generally undersized players who do their damage between the 20s. But Jones is one of the game’s largest targets at 6-foot-3, 220 pounds. He’s also one of the position’s best athletes, crushing his scouting combine in speed, jumping ability and agility. It’s tough to imagine a better receiver his size on the NFL boundaries when it comes to getting both feet down inbounds and defying gravity in the process. If an NFL quarterback were to design a perfect red-zone weapon in a lab, he would look a lot like Jones.

Incredibly, Jones’s lack of scoring seems to be by design. His percentage of QB Matt Ryan’s targets drops steadily the closer Atlanta gets to the goal line: from 32.8 percent of passes when the Falcons are at least 80 yards from the end zone to just a little more than half that — 16.7 percent — when they’re in the red zone.

Last Sunday, Atlanta lost to the Dolphins in the final minute when Ryan forced a pass in double coverage to second-year tight end Austin Hooper (36 career catches) instead of giving Jones a chance to make a play. The result was a game-ending interception at the Miami 6-yard line. While Jones said nothing, head coach Dan Quinn made it clear that he wasn’t pleased with bypassing his team’s best weapon.

Atlanta’s strange unwillingness to use its best receiver has now spanned three offensive coordinators. When the current one, Steve Sarkisian, was handed the keys to the offense that in 2016 led the NFL in scoring, he saw one major area where the unit could improve.

“Is there a way to get Julio more touches in the red zone and finding those matchups?” Sarkisian said at the time.

The answer, apparently, is “no.”

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Among all wide receivers and tight ends who have averaged at least 50 yards in at least 25 games since 2014.

  2. Only Vincent Jackson and Willie Snead have Jones beat here, with 343.6 and 270 yards per touchdown respectively.

Michael Salfino is a freelance writer in New Jersey. His work can be found on Yahoo and the Wall Street Journal.

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