Let’s get this out of the way at the top: Julio Jones was the best receiver in football this season. Just about any way you slice it, whether using traditional stats,1 advanced metrics2 or even play-by-play grades,3 Jones was the receiver who kept defensive coordinators up at night worrying about all the havoc he could wreak. His explosiveness and diversity of skills enabled offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to build the one of the best offenses in NFL history.
But what makes Jones so good?
At the most basic level, Jones dominates because of an unmatched combination of size and speed. Posting a 4.34-second 40-yard-dash before he was drafted, Jones ran the ninth-fastest combine time of any wideout who had at least 400 receiving yards in the 2016 season.4 All of the faster receivers are also smaller — nearly 5 inches shorter than the 6-foot-3 Jones, on average. While Jones was one of the fastest at the position regardless of height, most NFL wide receivers as tall as Jones ran the 40 slower than the overall position average of 4.47 seconds.
Wideouts that big and that fast are very difficult to cover. Think of Randy Moss (who, at 6-foot-4, ran an “unofficial” 4.25 second 40 in 1998) or, more recently, the two unrelated Johnsons, Andre (6-foot-2, 4.40) and Calvin (6-foot-5, 4.35), who used that formula to dominate the league’s receiving leaderboard in recent years. Moss in particular showed that a receiver who can stretch the field in all directions with speed, and then pluck balls from over defenders’ heads, can make an offense run far more efficiently than its individual components suggest it should.
But Jones’s dominance is more than just a product of “big guy runs fast.” Since he returned from a foot fracture that cost him most of the 2013 season, no receiver has put those gifts to better on-field use than Jones — across every aspect of the position, from the flashy to the technical.
We can measure how good Jones has been by breaking down what makes a great all-around receiver:
- The guy has to get open, so we’ll look at how often the ball comes his way (targets) as a percentage of his routes run.
- Ideally, receivers can go deep, so we’ll look at how far the ball travels before it gets to him (air yards per target).
- Then he still has to catch the darn ball, so we’ll look at his catch rate. (Air yards and catch rate are usually at odds with each other,5 since it’s harder to catch deep throws than short ones.)
- Once he’s open, has run a long ways and has caught the pass, it’d be nice if he could keep running without being tackled. So let’s also look at yards after the catch per reception.
- Oh, and one more thing — being a receiver isn’t all about receiving, so let’s look at blocking ability by using ProFootballFocus.com’s run-blocking grades.
If we rank every active receiver6 in those categories over the past three seasons and add up the ranks (with some weighting based on the relative importance of each category7), Jones rates as the most complete wide receiver in the NFL. Among the 98 receivers in our sample, he ranks 40th or better in every area of the game — the only receiver in the league who can make that claim.8
|RECEIVER||TEAM||TARGET FREQ.||AVG. DEPTH||CATCH RATE||RUN BLOCK||AFTER CATCH||WEIGHTED SUM|
Jones’s impressive combination of size and speed shows up most notably in his ability to get free of defenders — Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan targeted Jones on 30 percent of the routes he ran, the second most of any receiver (behind Kansas City’s Tyreek Hill at 31.5 percent) — as well as in his rare talent for keeping his catch rate up even as he goes deep. Based on the length of Jones’s average target — 11.9 yards beyond the line of scrimmage — we’d expect him to have caught only about 60 percent of the balls thrown in his direction; instead, he caught nearly 66 percent, a difference that amounts to 26 extra catches, many of the big-play variety. (Jones has 20 total receiving touchdowns over the past three seasons.) In other words, Jones mixes the reliability of a possession receiver with the big-play potential of a deep threat.
And once he catches the ball, he’s frequently off to the races:
So what hope do the New England Patriots — specifically, their defensive coordinator, Matt Patricia — have of containing Jones on Super Sunday?
For their part, the Patriots had the NFL’s 10th-worst pass defense during the regular season and the 13th-worst D against No. 1 receivers like Jones. But they also boast two of the 12 highest-rated cover cornerbacks in football (according to PFF) in Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan, plus Devin McCourty, PFF’s top-rated coverage safety. And in the playoffs, they’ve also held both Antonio Brown (No. 2 in our receiver rankings above) and DeAndre Hopkins (No. 10) to relatively tame performances.
In Jones and Atlanta’s high-powered offensive “buzzsaw,” however, the Pats face their toughest challenge yet. The Falcons have had a startling offensive breakout this season: They easily led the league in expected points added (EPA) through the air — and offensive EPA in general — during the regular season, QB Matt Ryan enjoyed one of the most efficient passing seasons in league history, and the offense has only improved in the playoffs.9
At the center of that offense is Jones. “Nobody can stop us but us,” Jones told reporters after the NFC title game. Whether that’s true or not will largely depend on whether New England can slow down the game’s most uncoverable receiver. Based on Jones’s performance these past few seasons, that’s a pretty tall (and fast) order.