ATLANTA — Left tackle Jake Matthews called him a “cheat code,” and for so often over the past decade it felt like receiver Julio Jones had an almost unfair advantage against defenses facing the Atlanta Falcons. Over and over again, Jones made the extraordinary feel routine, made the spectacular a regular part of his week-to-week, season-to-season performance.
Jones was everything the Falcons could have hoped when they traded up to select him out of Alabama in 2011. In reality, he was probably more. Jones became, for a stretch, the best receiver in the NFL.
Atlanta’s leader in receptions (848) and yards (12,896) and second behind Roddy White in touchdowns (60), his body-contorting catch in Super Bowl LI against New England has been consistently replayed over the past half-decade in a game his team lost. It’s one of the greatest catches of all time.
Simply, Jones one of Atlanta’s most recognizable players ever, even though now he’ll be elsewhere. The Falcons traded Jones to the Tennessee Titans on Sunday, effectively ending an era of offense in Atlanta and starting the coach Arthur Smith/general manager Terry Fontenot era off with a more drastic change than most anticipated.
The Falcons will receive a 2022 second-round draft pick and a 2023 fourth-round pick for Jones and a sixth-round pick in 2023.
While this has been coming for weeks, unfolding publicly with speculation starting before the draft even began when Fontenot said he’d listen to calls about Jones’ services due to Atlanta’s salary-cap constraints, it is still somewhat jarring.
In the 32-year-old’s decade in the NFL, he seemed to shun the spotlight, a private superstar in an era of so much information about public figures being shared and available for the world to see. His Twitter account is private. His Instagram follows no one and has 20 posts, total, dating to 2014.
What was known about Jones was often what was said publicly about him: good teammate, good in the community, hard worker, exceptional player. Those qualities are what led Atlanta owner Arthur Blank to say multiple times Jones would be a Falcon for life.
The reaction has been clear — at least as much as social media can or cannot be an arbiter of the feelings of a city — of what Julio Jones meant to Atlanta. Since the Alabama native arrived in Atlanta, he has been a favorite and turned into a franchise icon.
He was a first-team All-Pro twice, made seven Pro Bowls and took over for Calvin Johnson as the best receiver in the NFL by the time Johnson retired in 2015 — the same year Jones had 1,871 yards, second-most in league history behind Johnson.
He twice led the league in receiving (2015, ’18) and three times led the NFL in yards per game (2015, ’16, ’18). His career 95.5 receiving yards per game is the best all time, 9.4 yards better than No. 2 on the list (Johnson at 86.1) and more than 10 yards better than No. 3 (Michael Thomas, 85.0).
“Having him on your team allows you to do so many crazy-good things because he’s that caliber of a player,” Matthews said. “I have nothing but respect for him, and he’s been nothing but a great teammate to me.
“My entire career here has been having him here as well, and whatever happens I’ve got nothing but respect.”
Jones will be forever remembered for his time with the Falcons. That’s how it works in the NFL. Joe Namath might be the most famous Jet of all time, but he finished his career with the Rams. Jerry Rice is a 49er even though he played with Oakland and Seattle; same with Emmitt Smith and Dallas even though he spent two years in Arizona.
Just because Jones won’t play his entire career in Atlanta doesn’t diminish his importance to the Falcons. Yes, seeing him play for Tennessee next season will be strange. If another player wears No. 11 for Atlanta in the immediate future — which would be a mistake, for what it’s worth — it would be stunning.
A team or a player moving on happens eventually for almost everyone. Rare in today’s NFL is the player who starts and finishes his career with one team. But no matter where else Jones plays during the rest of his NFL tenure, one thing will be certain: He’ll be remembered as one of the greatest Falcons of all time.