As the end of 2015 approached, we closely monitored Julio Jones' numbers. In the end, after 16 games, he finished with 136 receptions and 1,871 receiving yards — both of which were career-highs, tops in Falcons history and among the best all-time for a single NFL season.
Because Matt Ryan has been spreading the ball around effectively in 2016, it'd be understandable if Jones' individual stats declined. And they have, in one respect: His 5.7 catches per game are almost three fewer than he reeled in last year.
Nevertheless, Jones is on track to earn even more receiving yards than he did in 2015. With 830 yards in seven contests, he'll end up with 1,897 if he maintains his current pace. That mark would break his own franchise record and stand as the second-highest single-season total ever amassed in the NFL, behind only Calvin Johnson's 1,964 yards posted in 2012.
"Julio is having a great season so far," said Green Bay's Mike McCarthy, the next head coach who will face Jones. "I know I'm stating the obvious. When you are watching the game tape you have to sometimes stop because you think you're watching a highlight reel."
Even though Jones isn't hauling in as many passes as he did a year ago, he's racking up lots of yards thanks to all the explosive plays he's creating.
Last season, as Ryan peppered Jones constantly, the Pro Bowl wideout registered 13.8 yards per catch. That rate has spiked to 20.8 in 2016. 279 of his yards have come on passes thrown 20-plus yards downfield and, unsurprisingly, no one in the league has more 20-plus yard receptions than his 16.
He has also used his rare combination of speed and strength to gain 243 yards after the catch, good for fourth in the league. Atlanta's Tevin Coleman is first in that category with 284.
"(Jones) can change direction like a man much smaller than 225 (pounds)," head coach Dan Quinn said. "So oftentimes the guys who are such great change-of-direction guys aren't the bigger guys. The bigger guys have lots of long speed, but it's harder for them to change direction. What makes him such a unique player is he has the addition of the size, but can also break guys off in man-to-man routes."
McCarthy offered a similar assessment.
"(Jones) is doing it all, whether it's yards after the catch or the deep ball," he said. "If you go through the checklist of what you need to do to be successful, when you look at the short to intermediate routes, he's a good route runner. His ability to go up and high-point and catch the football. (He's) getting out of breaks and he has the big-time vertical speed. He can beat you deep and just the physicality with the yards after the catch."
A lot of credit here goes to Ryan. On throws 20-plus yards downfield, he is No. 1 in passing yards (663) and QB rating (139.4). The veteran quarterback spent part of the offseason strengthening his shoulder at the 3DQB training facility, and that work seems to be paying off — for him, for Jones and for many of their teammates.
"We are always in-sync. People can't see it, but we always are in-sync," Jones said about his relationship with Ryan. "When people are putting two or three guys on me, I'm doing my job by pulling people away from other guys to get single coverage. Those guys are stepping up and making plays for us and also in the run game.
"That's just a part of brotherhood. People can't see that. I don't have to get the ball to go out there and be successful and win. My key is to win and that's what we're going to do. We're going to go out there and win games."