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Falcons GM has no regrets about trading up for Julio Jones

Atlanta gave up a lot, and they’re happy they did

Julio Jones

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Julio Jones

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — On one of those long bike rides he takes, or a cross-country flight to scout a college player, or perhaps just sitting in traffic, Thomas Dimitroff had given himself a chance to someday be alone with his thoughts and declare, “I’m gonna get fired for this.”

The Atlanta Falcons general manager traded five picks for a wide receiver, the University of Alabama’s Julio Jones, on April 28, 2011.

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“Dimitroff swapped the franchise for Jones. Now it’s just he and Julio down by the schoolyard.” — NFL blogger.

“Wide receivers have had their girlfriends burn down their house. Wide receivers take phone calls in the end zone. Wide receivers shoot themselves in the leg. General manager Thomas Dimitroff should be forced to walk the pigskin plank for orchestrating this foul-sounding yet predictable disaster.’’ — Sports Illustrated blogger.

Yep, hand the man a cigarette, tie on the blindfold, and ask if there any last words. Here are his last words:

“Categorically, no,” Dimitroff said softly last week when asked if he ever has regrets about the five-for-one deal.

Dimitroff, who had some schooling as a personnel man in six seasons with the Patriots as scout and scouting director, remains stress-free about a deal in which he gave up two first round picks (2011, 2012), a second-round pick (2011), and two fourth-round picks (2011, 2012) to climb 21 spots to draft the 6-foot-3-inch, 220-pound Jones of Foley, Ala.

The more they see of Jones, the sporting public in Atlanta is creeping over to the GM’s encampment. Cries for a do-over have dwindled because Jones is turning out to be as rare a talent as Dimitroff figured he was all along.

Jones, who made the Pro Bowl in 2012 in his second season, has 27 catches for 373 yards in three games going into Sunday night’s matchup against the Patriots in the Georgia Dome. He looks worth that pile of picks, after all.

“We feel very good about our decision from the standpoint of Julio on the field and off the field, and the leadership he has brought to this team in three years,” Dimitroff said. “We are encouraged by his evolution as one of the top receivers in this league. He had no diva-like qualities for a position that can sometimes bring that element to your team.”

Wide receivers typically do not evolve into leaders in the NFL. Some of them evolve into players who finesse their way around the field when the ball is not coming their way. They evolve into disruptions. Not Jones. He is the wide receiver who hunts somebody to block in case the play busts loose.

That is why Jones is so valuable. He is a ruffian with flair. Defensive backs need to play on ladders because Jones plays above their heads. They need skates because he can run by them with 4.3 speed. They need toughness because he has shock to his block.

“Most people in the league were aware of his makeup,” Dimitroff said. “It’s not always easy to play for Nick Saban’s style of team. We felt comfortable that he was well-rounded, tough, resilient, and not like the average receiver.”

Strong safeties do not scare Jones into drops over the middle. The phrase “throw him open” only applies to receivers who can go get the ball in the vicinity of their hands, and Jones is one of those receivers.

The Falcons went 14-4 in 2012, won a playoff game, and watched their high-risk, high-reward receiver grab 79 passes for 1,198 yards and 10 touchdowns. That is a productive season for a guy who has to share touches with a four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Roddy White and eventual Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez.

The Falcons (1-2) are two plays from being undefeated this season, even with five starters lost to injuries, including left tackle Sam Baker and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon. The 2012 success and above-average play this season flush the notion that the trade for Jones made the Falcons a poorer team for the long run.

The Falcons do not miss those five draft picks as much as they would miss Jones handling the ball on a reverse, streaking down the field with a slant pass, or stretching out for a catch in the end zone. White has a bad ankle and Gonzalez is being jammed and double-teamed, but Jones is snatching enough Matt Ryan passes to make up some of the difference.

Dimitroff, who was about to board a flight Friday morning on one of those scouting trips, can nap and not obsess. Things turned out just fine with Jones.

The Falcons had drafted well enough in Dimitroff’s first three seasons as GM to make a bold move in 2011. They had pieces in place. More important, they had a franchise quarterback in Ryan, a former Boston College star. Why waste a talent like Ryan by not giving him even more resources with which to work?

“This may have been a once-in-a-career type move,” Dimitroff said. “We felt that we were in the right place as an organization with the amount of veteran talent we had and the amount of youthful talent we had and the quarterback we had in place. It was a time that was right for us to get ourselves a very explosive player.”

Jones has been asked over and over about the deal and the onus on him to produce and justify himself, and he continues to say, “It was an honor they thought so highly of me. I was just happy to be drafted.”

Jones surely didn’t understand at the time the enormity of a team moving up 21 places to draft him, but he also didn’t have the ego that said, “Hell, yeah, I’m worth it.” His ego is so slight it fits on the tip of his gloved index finger.

At Alabama, Jones played a game at Tennessee in 2010 with a broken hand and caught 12 passes for 221 yards. In the Armageddon against LSU in 2009, Jones had a bum knee and still took a short pass and dashed 73 yards for a decisive touchdown.

“It’s football, everybody’s injured,” Jones said. “You have to go out there and play for others. It takes a different kind of guy to play this game. Unless nothing is broke, like my leg, I feel like I can push through anything.”

The gifts of the player nicknamed “Who” are why an Oklahoma booster tried to turn in Alabama to the NCAA for its recruitment of Jones.

Jones was seen at lunch with Ozzie Newsome, the Baltimore Ravens’ general manager and former Alabama All-American, and it outraged the Sooners’ booster because his school thought it had a commitment from Jones.

Newsome got a letter from the NCAA, but there was no reported sanction. It was lunch. Jones went to Alabama anyway and was an All-American.

Now he is a Pro Bowler and his teammates marvel over Jones’s athleticism, even the teammate who has been around long enough to see the likes of Jerry Rice and Michael Irvin and Marvin Harrison, and the blossoming of Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson.

“The guy is a freak, as far as I’m concerned,” said Gonzalez, who is in his 17th season. “And as a defense you have to respect that this guy can go over the top at any moment. So, defenses may think they know [the screen is] coming but in the back of their mind they’re like, ‘OK, wait a second, I can’t just really crowd this guy because if I do, if the screen’s coming, I’m going to get burned deep.’

“That’s what he brings to the table.”

The Patriots play a lot of man-to-man coverage in the secondary, and Jones is thinking he has to win those one-on-one opportunities. He is a matchup issue because of the screen pass and ability to break tackles, but also because of the 4.3 speed.

“He’s a lot faster than people give him credit for,” said Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. “He can run by you, he can jump over top, and he’s a good route runner.”

The quotes about Jones’s ability are stacking up taller than those about Dimitroff making a blunder on April 28, 2011. His team is 1-2 this season and has not played in a Super Bowl, but the Falcons GM can settle back in his seat and say, categorically yes, he made the right deal.

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