ATLANTA – The Falcons now have two of the University of Alabama's most prolific wide receivers on their roster in Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley.
And there's no one who knows those two men better than Nick Saban, the head coach of the Crimson Tide who recruited and coached both of them. Jones was one of Saban's first recruits, playing for him from 2008-2010. Ridley just finished his career in Tuscaloosa, playing for the Crimson Tide from 2015-2017.
Saban has won five national championships in his 11 seasons at Alabama and both Jones and Ridley have played key roles on those rosters.
In many ways, Jones is one of Alabama's most influential players. Not just because of the talent he brought to the program, but the type of person he is helped change the culture in Tuscaloosa.
In 2008, Jones' freshman year and Saban's second season as head coach, the Crimson Tide finished with their first undefeated regular season since 1994. The program was on the rise, and Jones was at the very front of that.
Jones was the first true freshman wide receiver to start a season-opener at Alabama and in his first collegiate season, he finished the regular season with 58 receptions, 924 yards, and four touchdowns.
But it wasn't just the talent Jones brought to the field that changed the culture, it was Jones' approach to it all that changed the game.
"I think he changed the culture of the work ethic of skill players on offense," Saban said of Jones. "Which is really important to turning around a program. Because he's such a hard worker. He had so much mental and physical toughness in terms of the way he competed and the way he played. That it was really unusual for a receiver to be that way. Whether it was a running play or a passing play, it really didn't matter. He was trying to excel on that play. And he did it with tremendous tenacity. Most of the time receivers, they want the ball. And if they're not getting the ball, they're over their pouting some place. He changed all of that. He made players look at what you had to do to be a complete player at that position which was a huge benefit for us.
Jones operates under the "I'll show you rather than tell you" mantra. He's on the more reserve side and chooses to lead by example. And his approach is respected by all.
"When he speaks, you always listen and I think that's the most important thing," Saban said. "Because of who he is, the kind of thoughts, habits, priorities that are really important to him. I think that it's a little issue with him if other people don't see things to the same standard that he would like for them to be. That's when you see the leadership come out. He always sets a good example but the side you don't see is, he does care about the other guys that he plays with. He's willing to help be better too, for their benefit, not necessarily for his."
In his three seasons at Alabama, Jones caught 179 passes for 2,653 yards and 15 touchdowns. After his junior season, Jones declared for the NFL Draft. The Falcons gave up five draft picks to the Cleveland Browns to move up to the No. 6 spot in the 2011 draft to get Jones. Based on Jones' production on the field and what he means to the organization, the move will go down as one of the best the franchise has ever made.
Jones put Alabama on the map in terms of recruiting. That's how Saban ended up acquiring young talented receivers like Amari Cooper and Calvin Ridley.
Seven years after drafting Jones, Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff drafted Ridley with the No. 26 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. Although a very different type of receiver than Jones, there's some similarities because of what the standard at Alabama teaches.
"He's a fine young man, he's a hard worker, it's very important for him to do well," Saban said. "He's smaller, quicker, great getting out breaks, more of a possession-type receiver."
Ridley caught 224 passes for 2,781 yards and 19 touchdowns at Alabama.
Although it's too early to tell what the Falcons' offense will look like with Jones and Ridley lining up together, here's what Saban says Falcons cans can expect:
"I think first of all their great people; they're going to represent the organization in a first class way," Saban said. "I think they'll both do a great job as competitors. It will be important to both of those guys to do the best they can and win in every opportunity they have. I think they'll be good teammates, they'll affect other people in a positive way. I think in professional sports, if you have people like that on your team, it's a real plus."