Julio Jones might have more nicknames than any rookie in the history of the NFL.
Before he's caught a meaningful pass in the league he's being called the missing link, the player placed here in Atlanta to take the Falcons from really good, to incredible.
Jones had what many would consider an amazing college football career at wide receiver for one of the most historic college teams in the country. The expectations on him are understandable.
But that's a lot for the shoulders of a rookie, even one Mr. Jones.
Falcons head coach Mike Smith always reminds everyone of the price the team paid to get Jones when he speaks of his wide receiver. Sure, the fans are excited, but the coach is too, and he believes simply by the location in the draft that No. 11 was selected, expectations are sure to follow.
General manager Thomas Dimitroff and Smith believe they selected a player that is equipped to handle such expectations, even though a quick glance over any year's top-10 draft picks will show plenty of players who couldn't make it. They believe he's got the "it" factor, and because of that they never planned to temper the expectations or dial anything back for Jones.
"When you're a first-round draft pick there's going to be a lot of expectations, especially when you're in the top 10," Smith said. "Of course, we made a move to move up to get him. There are expectations and we're not going to change anything."
Smith said similar expectations were placed on '08 first-round quarterback Matt Ryan and he and his staff handled their young signal-caller in a similar way. They sought to simplify the jump from college to the pros as plain ol' football, no different from what they've played their entire lives. The things that got players like Ryan and Jones to the NFL in such a dramatic fashion were the same things that would keep them around and successful in the NFL.
Even though they haven't tempered their expectations for the receiver, they are realistic and expect there to be some bumps in the road.
"In terms of learning our system, there's going to be a learning curve," the coach said. "I think he's ahead in terms of what he's been able to learn. No, we're not going to put governers on; we're just going to make sure we evaluate what our guys are capable of doing and, as a coach, that's what you have to do."
The role first-round receivers play in their rookie season varies. Some are brought in to save a franchise. In many cases over the years, players like Peter Warrick and Charles Rodgers couldn't use their abilities to the elite level needed by their franchise. Those two, like many others in the past 15 years, couldn't meet their expectations.
There are other stories like Calvin Johnson and Marvin Harrison. They quickly used their talent to heighten the success of their team. It wasn't long before those two were the best players on their team. Randy Moss' rookie season is near legendary, dueling with a future hall of famer in Minnesota for a 15-1 team's spotlight.
The numbers weigh heavily in favor of not expecting tremendous things from a rookie wide receiver, even those that went on to be stars at the position.
It's an often repeated belief of the league that rookie wide receivers make the least amount of impact. While it's hard to ignore the numbers, Smith says if you expand that to all the positions you'd find the same kind of results. Wide receiver is a high-profile, impact position so the scrutiny is more narrow, but Smith refuses to accept that receivers struggle any more than other positions.
"I think there's been some receivers that have had great rookie years," he said. "There's a lot of players that have had good rookie seasons and not good rookie seasons. I think you can talk about all positions that are drafted in the first round."
Perhaps a better expectation for a player like Jones is one similar to Indianapolis Colts' All-Pro Reggie Wayne. As a rookie, he joined a high-flying offense and was only expected to help out the star wide receiver already on the team, Marvin Harrison. As you can see (in the chart below) Wayne's initial season was solid but unspectacular as he was worked into the offense.
The bottom line with Jones is there's no reason to believe he won't be a fantastic player in the NFL. However, perhaps aligning realistic expectations with the ones produced during the preseason is a better approach. It's obvious Jones will help the Falcons if the ball is in his hands or not.
Either way, everyone's excited about the kid. Even the coach.
"We like where Julio is right now," Smith said. "He's worked extremely hard for us. I'm excited about seeing him play."
### WRS in Their Rookie Years