We know it is coming. Julio Jones is about to get paid. Should we expect him to receive a contract similar to what Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas received a few days ago? These players are typically mentioned in the same group, but how do they measure up?
The biggest problem with comparing the three? Jones missing 11 games in his junior season. It is harder to measure his progress, but things certainly looked good.
Julio was an immediate impact player. Despite being hamstrung in Mike Mularkey's egregious offensive scheme, Jones finished up with 959 yards across only 13 games. Thomas and Bryant were much slower to develop.
Thomas came out of Georgia Tech, and as you may expect with every wide receiver out of Georgia Tech, needed plenty of work to play wide receiver in the NFL. He made only seven starts in his first two NFL seasons, and did not really shine with the likes of Tim Tebow at quarterback. While he was dealing with injury during the combine, he (personally) reported he was running in the 4.3's in the 40. The 6-foot-3, 229-pound had potential. His statistical jump after adding Peyton Manning is unreal. He went from 551 reception yards to 1434. He went from a part-time player to three straight seasons of 1400+ yards and 10+ touchdowns. He's been averaging more yardage than Roddy White has ever had.
Bryant came on faster than Thomas, but failed to break 1,000 reception yards until his third season. He entered the draft at 6-foot-2, 224-pounds, and ran a pretty good 4.52 40. Dez has dealt with a number of issues through his career, including a ridiculous suspension while in college, a couple of lawsuits, a domestic violence issue, and some mysterious video that apparently exists that no one has seen. But Dez has stayed mostly out of the headlines recently, and has three straight seasons of 1200+ receiving yards and 12+ touchdowns. Since Dallas games are always on television, I do not have to tell you that he is really good, and deals with double teams on a consistent basis.
I probably do not have to tell you about Julio Jones. He played 15 games last year and had ALMOST 1600 RECEIVING YARDS. I STILL DO NOT KNOW HOW THAT IS POSSIBLE. Did you remember that he has the highest average receiving yards per game in all of NFL history? Or that during his forgotten third year, he was averaging 116 yards per game? He entered the combine at 6-foot-3, 220-pounds, and ran a ridiculous 4.39 40. He is a beast... when healthy.
The knocks on each
In 2014, PFF scored Dez, Thomas, and Julio as their 4th, 5th, and 6th best wide receivers, respectively. Julio snuck ahead of Thomas in the PFF score per snap, but still lagged behind Bryant. Realistically, their statistics are all pretty similar. Jones has the best catch rate, slightly higher yards per catch, but lacked the touchdowns the other two had. (I bet Denver and Dallas had an offensive coordinator who targeted their massive players in the end zone, and not Jacquizz Rodgers.)
As I see it, all three have question marks. Thomas looks to be the safest of all three players. The problem is that Manning opens up the field so much, Thomas does not see the coverage that Jones and Bryant typically get. Julius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders totaled over 1,900 yards and 21 touchdowns last year. Roddy White and Levine Toilolo? Under 1,200 receiving yards and only 11 touchdowns. Word is Denver also had a run game.
But Manning has been able to plug and play pass catchers. Julius Thomas had literally one catch before catching 24 touchdowns and about 1,280 yards the last two seasons. Would Thomas produce nearly as well outside of Denver? That is a tough question to answer, but despite better statistics and no off-field concerns, he took less guaranteed money than Bryant: five years, $75 million total, and $43.5 million guaranteed.
Bryant is the biggest wildcard. Maturity could still be an issue, and is realistically not far removed from his slew of early career issues. He could really shine if the Cowboys added another pass catcher, but his character concerns could get in the way of finishing out this new contract. Dallas obviously could not have Bryant sitout, but Denver has other offensive weapons and were not as reliant on their top pass catcher. Maybe that is why Bryant did a bit better than Thomas: five years, $75 million total, and $45 million guaranteed.
We at the Falcoholic are homers for Falcon players, but I am going to call Jones is the best in the group. He has really improved his hands and route running the last few years, and is able to just destroy opposing corners. With White slowing down, and Matt Ryan hitting the peak quarterback years, Jones could push to Calvin Johnson numbers. However, injury may cut into Julio's contract potential. There was talk that the screw in his foot could be difficult to fully heal, and he has dealt with hamstring problems in the past. Jones has missed 15 across four seasons, and it is impossible to know if Jone can stay healthy the next five years.
As I mentioned previously, each player had some different strengths and weaknesses, and it is impossible to point at one and say that player should be clearly be paid higher than the others. Even though I just did that in the previous paragraph.
Realistically, these are players in the top five of their position that are about to enter their prime, all presenting some level of long term risk. The Falcons should be quick about offering Jones a contract similar (if not exactly) what was signed by Bryant and Thomas. He may be able to push for a little more guaranteed money, but the numbers should come in pretty close to Bryant and Thomas. These wide receivers are ridiculously comparable, and if the Falcons can lock up Jones at this price, they should jump at the chance.