The NFC South looks to be tremendously competitive in 2014. From the Buccaneers going back to their Tampa 2 roots, to the Panthers fielding one of the best front sevens in football, to the Falcons shoring up their roster and retaining key pieces after an injury plagued 2013, from top to bottom it looks like it will be a dogfight from Day One when the Saints travel to Atlanta.
Each team has low talent, average talent, high talent, and "how the hell did he do that?" talent. As we all know from 11 years of heartache, the NFC South is an incredibly difficult division to win. So difficult, in fact, no team has done it in consecutive years. There is seemingly always a dark horse team coming up from behind to take the crown, and going into every season the question is: who will it be now? In 2013 it was Luke Kuechley and the upstart Panthers, in 2012 it was Julio Jones realizing his full Super Saiyan potential, and in 2011 it was our own Saints led by the old 2009 gang.
Atlanta Falcons: Julio Jones
Controversial statement time: Julio Jones is an example of a team betting the farm on a player and it paying off. Back in 2011 when he was drafted, the Falcons gave up their 27th, 59th and 124th overall picks in that same draft, in addition to their first and fourth round picks in the 2012 draft, to Cleveland in order to move up to 6th overall. Jones was a physical freak coming out of Alabama, and that was no secret to anyone involved in the deal. With a frame of 6’3" and 220 lbs, in conjunction with a blazing 4.38 40, the Falcons knew what they were getting.
In his first season, Jones was the number two target behind veteran Roddy White, whom Matt Ryan had a significantly more expansive rapport with. Despite only catching 54 passes, however, Jones finished with 959 yards on the season, averaging 17.8 yards per catch. Furthermore, Jones caught all 8 of his touchdown passes in Week 9 or later, starting an absolute tear. Jones finished the season leading all rookies in touchdowns, and he finished second behind Cincinnati’s AJ Green in yardage.
In his second season, Ryan realized he had someone special. Jones played all 16 games, and he caught 79 passes for 1,198 yards and 10 touchdowns (all career highs). This was the season that best encapsulated Jones’s contribution to his team. Despite having White and Tony Gonzalez on his team, in 2012 Jones quickly emerged as a true number one target, and he led the Falcons to a division title.
Despite team struggles early in 2013, Jones was on pace for a record setting season. Through the first five games, he caught 41 passes for 580 yards and 2 touchdowns. However, in Week 5 against the Jets, Jones reinjured a foot that had previously had a screw implanted into it. The screw came out of his foot, and Jones had to get season ending surgery (by the way, the play that he injured his foot on was as awesome as the rest of his season, a one-handed catch while being blanketed by the Jets' Antonio Cromartie). Had he continued the pace that he had set through five weeks, Jones would have had 131 catches, 1,856 yards and 7 touchdowns. Jones and Ryan were a strong connection despite an anemic offensive line, and Ryan’s numbers saw a significant drop with the loss of Jones.
Through the first 5 games of the season, Ryan averaged 329.8 yards passing per game. In the 11 games Ryan played without Jones, Ryan averaged only 260.5 yards per game. While correlation does not necessarily equal causation and any number of things could lead to this drop-off in production from Ryan (namely the fact that Harry Douglas was his number one receiver for a good stretch of season), losing a receiver as dynamic as Jones will always adversely affect a team’s passing game. Defenses key in on more specific areas of an offense’s game. They’re also able to bring more pressure and worry less about keeping safeties over the top when a vertical threat like Jones is no longer in the game.
For those who aren’t familiar with Football Outsiders’ signature statistics, their two most well-known ones are DVOA (Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average) and DYAR (Defense-Adjusted Yards Above Replacement). As dangerous as it can be to get bogged down in advanced sabermetric stats (see: baseball), these two statistics are largely regarded as some of the most efficient ways to measure player worth (think PER in basketball). DVOA takes each individual play and factors in down & distance, game situation (without factoring in something as relative as "clutchness" like Total QBR does). DVOA also accounts for how close a play gets to a first down, rather than the net yardage, and how close it gets to a touchdown. DYAR accounts for the irreplaceable yards that a player gets his team. It presents the hypothetical, what would happen if X were taken out of Y’s offense? In essence, it describes how big a role a player has on a team. For more information on these statistics, look here.
Pitting Jones up against Calvin Johnson, the nearly consensus best receiver in the NFL, may seem crazy, but in statistics not measured by sheer volume, they’re shockingly similar, with the key exception of DYAR. Johnson is well ahead of Jones in this category, due to the fact that unlike Matt Stafford, Ryan had options in this season. Here’s a look at what each did in 2012, Jones’s only full season and Calvin’s historic campaign, in which he very nearly reached 2000 yards:
While I’m not trying to mitigate the importance of DYAR, the lack of weapons in the 2012 Lions offense inflates that number. According to DVOA, Jones was actually on par with Johnson in what is more than likely Johnson’s best season. Going purely by VOA (which is not adjusted by defenses), Jones actually was able to exploit defenses more frequently than Johnson was. Add this to the fact that Johnson nearly caught as many passes as Jones got targeted, and it’s easy to see why raw statistics may not tell the whole story.
Jones is going to come back in 2014, and he’s going to still be a freakish talent. It will be interesting to see if Jones is truly back to 100%, and if he is teams had best look out. The Falcons knew that they would have an uphill battle in 2013 even with Jones, due to their slow start and the fact that the Saints raced out of the gate, so shelving him was probably the right move. It would be unwise not to fully expect Jones to make a strong case as one of the best in the NFL. Athletically, he is easily on tier with second tier players like Green. But it will be interesting to see if he can jump up with Johnson and make his case to truly be the best receiver in the league. Without Gonzalez on the team anymore, in conjunction with a White that is in the twilight of his career, this may be his best opportunity yet.