Jones is starting to match potential with production

One of the toughest prospects to judge this year is Alabama wide receiver Julio Jones. After an excellent season as a true freshman (924 yards, four TD’s) much was expected from Jones in 2009. He regressed slightly as a sophomore, putting in a number of frustrating performances littered with mental errors and drops. The numbers were down – only 596 yards – and he entered his junior (and likely final) year with the Crimson Tide needing to rekindle his spark.

Physically he’s everything you’d ever want in a #1 NFL wide out. He has the height (6-4), the size (220lbs) and the speed to do it all. He blocks well in the running game, he gets down field to stretch a defense. You can use him in the red zone on fades or play action.

When I watched him in 2009, I was pretty disappointed. I’m not sure if it was the level of expectation getting to him, but there were too many basic errors. It doesn’t matter how physically elite you are if you have a case of the drops. He only had one +100 yard game last year – largely in part due to a 73-yard touchdown screen against LSU. Part of the problem was Alabama’s run heavy offense which used the pass as a compliment feature. But you couldn’t get away from the drops.

I’d originally seen Alabama two times this year – against Arkansas and Florida. A single play from Jones also sticks in the mind from ‘Bama’s opener against San Jose State – a world class one handed grab for a TD which showed the immense talent on offer.

Against Arkansas and Florida, I got the impression not much had changed this year with Jones. Alabama ran the ball well and didn’t use their talented receiver a whole lot. There were a couple of sloppy drops against Arkansas. Jones was completely shut down by Janoris Jenkins against Florida – his four grabs for 19 yards only came via dump offs and screens. He was a complete non-factor in a blow-out victory.

At this point I wondered if we were looking at a pure ‘potential’ prospect – someone who has the tools, but like a lot of wide receivers coming into the NFL – no guarantee the light switches on in the pro’s. Scouts Inc had Jones ranked with a second round grade. Matt McGuire posted a mock draft on WalterFootball with Jones in round two, stating:

“Don’t say I didn’t warn you if Julio Jones to me looks like the next Roy Williams (underachieving receiver with all the physical talent in the world) or James Hardy (a poor man’s Roy Williams with less speed).”

Alternatively, Chad Reuter from NFL Draft Scout ranked Jones as a potential top-10 pick in his mock drafts. Mel Kiper has kept Jones in the range he currently sits on his big board – #13 overall. Mocking the Draft went a step further recently and suggested he could even be a top-five pick:

“Playing against man coverage with a safety shadowing over top, Jones displayed his strength and speed. More than anything, he also showed his toughness. It’s what sets him apart from every receiver in the nation, other than Green. It’s what also could get Jones into the top five of the 2011 NFL Draft.”

With such a contrast in rankings, I wanted to spend some time looking at Jones. His performance last Saturday in setting a school record for receiving – 221 yards and 12 catches against Tennessee – made me wonder if finally the production was going to match the potential.

I had Alabama’s defeat to South Carolina saved up and ready to watch. In the game, Jones had 118 yard from eight catches and a TD.

The first thing I noticed is something that I’ve picked up on before. Jones sometimes has a little dance step at the snap which needs to be removed. It’s not a big issue – Michael Crabtree had exactly the same problem. However, he’s capable of exploding and running really crisp routes and this holds him back slightly.

If this was the first time I’d seen Jones and you told me he had issues with drops – I wouldn’t believe you. Apart from one low drop which was all on Greg McIlroy’s terrible throw, Jones’ hands were borderline elite. Everything was plucked out of the air with his hands – no body catching. I don’t rate McIlroy as a quarterback in the slightest – and this was the perfect example why. He struggled to hit a 6-4 target dwarfing over coverage, yet Jones bailed him out with a number of acrobatic grabs.

He ran one great route down the middle of the field – this time the throw was on the money. Jones had two defensive backs ready to deliver a crunching hit, but he didn’t hear footsteps and simply completed the pass and took the shot. Impressive.

With 40 seconds left of the first half and with Alabama trailing, he feigned to the outside before cutting through a slant in the red zone. McIlroy throws a wild pass high up into the air above Jones’ head. He quickly adjusts and makes a superb, athletic grab for the touchdown despite tight coverage and a hand in the face from the DB.

I counted seven occasions when Jones beat his man deep but McIlroy didn’t look for him. The ‘Bama QB might have all the ‘moxie’ and ‘leadership’ in the world, but he makes one read and if it’s not on – takes the sack or throws it away. On every one of the seven occasions he never even looked Jones’ way. If he had, we could’ve been talking about a school record earlier than the Tennessee game.

Overall I came away impressed. That was the benchmark from which Jones has to build on – and it’s good to see he’s done so in the next game he saw significant action (injury kept him out vs Ole Miss). His most recent achievements are all the more impressive because he’s been battling a serious hand injury. He’s not a diva, he’s got the attitude you don’t always expect from a talented CFB receiver.

If he’s turned the corner and is starting to show a level of performance that matches his potential – I’d feel confident giving Jones a top-20 grade.