A stunning draft-day move will shape the season—and the future

In most training camps, when the quarterback walks by, fans elbow each other. Kids shriek for an autograph. Eyes get glued on the guy.

In two Falcons practices witnessed by an SI reporter this August it was the rookie receiver from Alabama, Julio Jones, everyone wanted to see.

"What number's Julio?"

"That's Julio!"

"God, Julio's skinny!"

"Julio! JULIO!! JULIO!!!"

The Falcons signed the pricey defensive end they've needed for years in Vikings free agent Ray Edwards. They drafted a flashy new running back, Jacquizz Rodgers from Oregon State. There's an alltime tight end, Tony Gonzalez, playing what may be his last season. Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Ryan is in the house, throwing to All-Pro wideout Roddy White and handing off to 1,000-yard rusher Michael Turner.

And there's number 11, the man G.M. Thomas Dimitroff mortgaged a significant part of Atlanta's future to acquire on draft day. Last year in the NFC South, Tampa Bay sat back and drafted Mike Williams from Syracuse in the fourth round, and he became the No. 1 wideout on a 10-win team. This year the Falcons traded 2011 second- and fourth-round picks and next year's first- and fourth-rounders to move up 21 spots in the first round, to sixth, so they could choose Jones, a receiver with a tremendous work ethic, elite speed, good blocking ability and questionable hands.

At 6'3" and 220 pounds, Jones plays above everyone in the secondary and wins balls in the air. In training camp his confidence was evident: Even when he was closely guarded by a corner he was sticking his hand up to grab the ball. He just thinks he's going to win it.

He'd better. This was a franchise-altering trade, a deal some of Dimitroff's peers thought was gutsy and others crazy. In camp the Falcons didn't see the occasional drops that were visible on Jones's Alabama tape, but they know they could when the real games start.

Jones leaves no doubt that when he takes the field on Sept. 11, he'll give the Falcons their money's worth in effort and attitude. Asked if it would bother him to be the third or fourth target in an offense rich with offensive weapons, he said quickly, "No, sir. Not at all, sir."

Said Jones, "I'm a winner. I don't care about stats. I never have. In the first game of the year, if I catch no balls and we win, I'll be thrilled. If they tell me the game plan is to go out and block the safety in the mouth 60 times and we win, I'll be thrilled. To me, football's been about winning and nothing else."

In the first two preseason games Jones was targeted only six times. Against Jacksonville on Aug. 19 he blocked with fervor downfield but was well covered by a physical secondary that took shots at him in the five-yard bump zone. If slot receiver Harry Douglas (against the Jags he scored on a 76-yard catch-and-sprint) is fully back from a 2009 knee injury—he tore his left ACL; last year he played all 16 games but clearly wasn't himself—there's a good chance that early on Jones will be blocking more often than his price tag would suggest.

Ryan seems comfortable with his new receiver. "I threw to him three times a week for seven weeks after the draft at a high school in the area," the fourth-year QB says. "We were running the routes he'd have been running in minicamps. We were able to get in the kind of quality practices you want to have with a rookie before he takes the field for real."

It's clear from his demeanor that Jones doesn't take losing well; neither does the other big-name newcomer, Edwards. When Atlanta was embarrassed by the Packers in the playoffs last January, there appeared to be little fightback against the slaughter. Edwards, who boxed to stay in shape in the off-season, is a pugnacious guy with a short on-field fuse, a quality the Falcons were looking for as they pursued a defensive end in free agency.

Dimitroff isn't second-guessing himself about the deal for Jones. He has a good relationship with Alabama coach Nick Saban, who put his own credibility on the line with the Falcons, telling Atlanta that Jones was an even better person and worker than he was a receiver. "At the end of the process," says Dimitroff, "we were convinced Julio was the kind of player we had to have to make our team significantly better."

In the NFC these days, with the Packers and Saints and Eagles fortified and four or five other bona fide Super Bowl contenders, a team can't stand pat. The Falcons are betting the future that their moves will make the difference.

PROJECTED LINEUP

WITH 2010 STATS

OFFENSE

2010 Rank: 16

QB MATT RYAN

ATT 571

COMP 357

PCT 62.5

YARDS 3,705

YD/ATT 6.5

TD 28

INT 9

RATING 91.0

RB MICHAEL TURNER

ATT 334

YARDS 1,371

REC 12

TTD 12

FB OVIE MUGHELLI

ATT 13

YARDS 36

REC 13

TTD 1

WR RODDY WHITE

REC 115

YARDS 1,389

AVG 12.1

TTD 10

WR JULIO JONES (R)

REC 78

YARDS 1,133

AVG 14.5

TTD 9

TE TONY GONZALEZ

REC 70

YARDS 656

AVG 9.4

TTD 6

LT SAM BAKER

G 16

SACKS 11½

HOLD 3

FALSE 2

LG JUSTIN BLALOCK

G 16

SACKS 1½

HOLD 0

FALSE 1

C TODD MCCLURE

G 16

SACKS 1

HOLD 0

FALSE 0

RG GARRETT REYNOLDS

G 4

SACKS 0

HOLD 0

FALSE 0

RT TYSON CLABO

G 16

SACKS 5

HOLD 0

FALSE 0

RB JASON SNELLING

ATT 87

YARDS 324

REC 44

TTD 5

WR HARRY DOUGLAS

ATT 22

YARDS 294

REC 13.4

TTD 1

DEFENSE

2010 Rank: 16

DE RAY EDWARDS

TACKLES 37

SACKS 8

INT 0

DT COREY PETERS

TACKLES 33

SACKS 1

INT 0

DT JONATHAN BABINEAUX

TACKLES 27

SACKS 4

INT 1

DE JOHN ABRAHAM

TACKLES 40

SACKS 13

INT 1

LB STEPHEN NICHOLAS

TACKLES 78

SACKS 0

INT 1

LB CURTIS LOFTON

TACKLES 118

SACKS 2

INT 1

LB SEAN WEATHERSPOON

TACKLES 42

SACKS 1

INT 0

CB BRENT GRIMES

TACKLES 87

SACKS 0

INT 5

SS WILLIAM MOORE

TACKLES 72

SACKS 0

INT 5

FS THOMAS DECOUD

TACKLES 74

SACKS 0

INT 1

CB DUNTA ROBINSON

TACKLES 55

SACKS 0

INT 1

DT PERIA JERRY

TACKLES 9

SACKS 2

INT 0

SPECIALISTS

K MATT BRYANT

FG 28

FGA 31

XP 44

PTS 128

P MATT BOSHER (R)

PUNTS 59

GROSS 44.0

BOLD: Projected starter

Italics: New acquisition

(R) Rookie: College stats

TTD: Total touchdowns

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN

SACKS: Sacks allowed

HOLD: Holding penalties

FALSE: False starts

2011 SCHEDULE

2010 RECORD: 13--3

September

11 at Chicago

18 Philadelphia

25 at Tampa Bay

October

2 at Seattle

9 Green Bay

16 Carolina

23 at Detroit

30 BYE

November

6 at Indianapolis

13 New Orleans

20 Tennessee

27 Minnesota

December

4 at Houston

11 at Carolina

15 Jacksonville (Thu)

26 at New Orleans (Mon)

January

1 Tampa Bay

COACH: MIKE SMITH

AGE: 52

FOURTH SEASON WITH THE FALCONS (33--15)

A thinker. Smith doesn't do things by the book; he operates from his own book on factors like player participation (reducing veteran pass rusher John Abraham's snaps from about 60 to 40 per game and getting more production) and practices (he treats some like advanced classroom sessions). Brian Billick's brother-in-law is an understated innovator, but ask those around him: He questions everything.

SPOTLIGHT

JACQUIZZ RODGERS, Running back

The first thing you notice about the 5'6" Jacquizz Rodgers, the Falcons' fifth-round pick from Oregon State, is his lower body. Rodgers's legs are mini--tree trunks. For a guy with the quick moves to make opponents miss between the tackles, the 21-year-old Rodgers can also make tacklers miss with a powerful running style. He does not shy from contact.

The next thing you notice are some telling statistics. In three busy seasons with the Beavers, Rodgers had 939 touches from the line of scrimmage—788 rushing attempts, 151 pass receptions—and fumbled just three times. He had more than 250 carries each year and averaged 4.9 yards per attempt overall. Falcons G.M. Thomas Dimitroff sees those numbers and thinks he got a steal. "The fifth round," Dimitroff mused during training camp in Flowery Branch, Ga. "That's one of the things we're happiest about. To get him there, with the kind of production he had and how he never turned it over, we're really excited."

This season, look for Rodgers to be a factor in the return game and to become an occasional third-down back. This isn't to say he'll be active every Sunday, though. It might take an injury to a returner (Eric Weems) or another running back (Jason Snelling) some weeks to put him among the 46 Falcons players who dress. But the electricity he showed in camp is certain to be on display this season, and soon.

PHOTOBOB ROSATO PHOTOBOB ROSATOJOLT OF ENERGY Dimitroff traded up for Jones to add another weapon to the Falcons' already formidable offense and inject some feistiness into the lineup. PHOTOBOB ROSATO (RODGERS)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)