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What an increase in red zone targets means for Julio Jones

The best receiver in the NFL will score more this year, but the Falcons know that feeding #11 tons of RZ targets isn’t necessarily the best way forward.

Super Bowl LI - New England Patriots v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

One drum that gets banged every year by fantasy footballers and Falcons fans alike is the “please give Julio Jones more red zone targets” drum. Julio is arguably the most exceptional wide receiver in football, but he has never scored at an elite clip. Jordy Nelson of the Packers has 27 touchdowns over his last two full seasons, while Jones has 32 over his last five.

The question, every year, is how the Falcons can get Julio the ball more often in the red zone and increase his scoring total. Those who hope for this (myself usually included) typically want more fantasy points, to burnish Julio’s future Hall of Fame resume, or simply to improve the Falcons passing game even further. But will more targets lead to more success, or are we simply tilting at windmills?

The target picture

Let us answer that by looking at all receivers who were targeted inside the 20 in 2016. Your leader by a wide margin was Nelson, who who was targeted 29 times, reeled in 19 receptions inside the 20, and scored 11 touchdowns. He was followed by Minnesota tight end Kyle Rudolph (24 targets, 5 touchdowns) and Anquan Boldin (22 targets, 6 touchdowns).

Julio, meanwhile, received nine targets, four of which he caught, for two touchdowns. Interestingly enough, that target load tied him with A.J. Green (who also scored two touchdowns on red zone targets) and DeAndre Hopkins (who scored once).

What you’re getting a sense for, hopefully, is that way that many #1 receivers become priorities for defenses in the red zone. Teams load up on the likes of A.J. Green and DeAndre Hopkins because they know they’re far more dangerous than other options, and they do so with Julio even though the Falcons can hurt defenses a million different ways because he’s still the most lethal option there. Ryan isn’t going to force it to Julio these days when someone else is likely to slip open against less intimidating coverage. There’s simply no need to feed Julio when things tighten up when he’s so deadly in the open field between the 20s, and you have the likes of Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman, Austin Hooper, Mohamed Sanu, and so on when you’re close.

The scoring picture

It’s still true that more targets correlate pretty well with more touchdowns, as you’d expect. Julio’s only been targeted 20 or more times twice in his career inside the 20, and he scored a career-high 10 times in 2012 and 8 times in 2015 with those totals. If the Falcons want to get him the ball in the red zone—and Steve Sarkisian has indicated they do—they’ll find ways to do it. Julio’s simply too talented not to be open more than nine damn times in a season.

Ultimately, though, are more targets for Julio the best thing for the offense? Considering Atlanta’s historically great season in 2016 when Julio was quiet inside the 20, you can make a strong argument that the Falcons should let the situation and the coverage dictate where they go with the ball, rather than clinging to the idea that Julio needs to be fed in the red zone. When you don’t know who is getting the ball, your defense is already on its heels, after all.

As with all things, moderation is key. I’m willing to bet Julio will bring in a couple more touchdowns in 2017, but the Falcons would be wise not to force the issue. Julio will remain elite regardless.