One of the ideas to gain traction during the age of analytics is that trading down in the NFL Draft is the optimal strategy. The ideas behind it are simple. The NFL Draft is a lottery. Historically, teams aren't any better than others when making selections and teams overestimate their own ability to scout players. Teams place more value on high first round picks than they should, which leads to a greater haul than an efficient market should allow. As a result, the goal should be to get as many lottery tickets as possible; as a bonus, they can gain greater value for what they give up.
The difference between the NFL Draft and the actual lottery is there is a subjective aspect to the draft. Teams have control over the decisions they make with their evaluations. Even if no team is perfect, they have the opportunity to control and develop their selection rather than pick random numbered balls that involve zero skill with infinitesimal odds.
Now, I'm not trying to kick this theory to the curb and produce an idea that trading up is the right option. In most cases, trading down is the correct decision. Extra picks produce more cost-controlled players who can turn into starters at a fraction of the cost of free agency. What I'm getting at is that trading up can be an effective strategy at times, and is not something that should never ever be done.
The Atlanta Falcons' selection of Julio Jones is the perfect representation of this. From 2008, their senior year in high school, to the 2011 NFL Draft, both A.J. Green and Julio Jones have been compared to each other. Coming out of high school, Julio Jones was ranked as the best wide receiver in the country. A.J. Green was second, according to Tom Lemming of CBS College Sports and Rivals.com.
Both went to their esteemed state schools, Jones to Alabama and Green to Georgia. There, they put up the following numbers:
Both of these players had nearly identical college careers, the only difference being Green catching longer passes and more touchdowns and Jones snagging more receptions. They each opted to cash in their meal plans and dorm rooms for millions of dollars and entered the NFL Draft after their junior year. At the NFL Combine, they were the two best receivers in the class. There was no else to compare these two. They again performed similarly. The only difference was Green was taller, had longer arms, graded better on film, while Jones was a marginally better athlete. If someone liked one more than the other, it was a personal preference. It was like picking a gerbil over a hamster.
Coming into the NFL Draft, the Atlanta Falcons had just completed a dream season where they had the best record in the NFC at 13-3, went 7-2 in one possession games, finished 7th in DVOA (16.3%), 9th in offensive DVOA (12%), and 7th in passing DVOA (26.5%) with a then 25 year old Matt Ryan commanding the offense.
On offense, the Falcons gave the ball to Michael Turner a lot. Like, a whole lot. Turner led the league in carries with 334, but averaged only 4.1 Y/C. In the passing game, Ryan threw the ball to Roddy White, who led the league in catches and was second in yards, and Tony Gonzalez. A lot, like a whole lot.
2010 Atlanta Falcons receiving stats
They had the 26th pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. They wanted a wide receiver to play on the other side of a twenty-nine year old Roddy White, decrease the workload of the 34 year old Gonzalez, and find a receiver they could pair with Matt Ryan for the next decade. These two sentences don't work together. After Jones and Green, there wasn't a receiver available who could change the offense. Both Jones and Green would be snatched off the board by the time the Falcons drafted. Rather than stand still and pick through the leftovers, Atlanta attacked and went to work to move up and get one of the two best receivers in the country.
The Bengals selected Green, but before the pick was made the Falcons tried to work out a trade with them. Negotiations fell through because Cincinnati overvalued their first round pick and felt like Atlanta wasn't giving up enough. So again, the Falcons dialed the phones like a salesman and called everyone's favorite trading partner, the Cleveland Browns. Together, they come up with a deal. The Falcons gave up their 2011 1st round pick (26th overall), 2011 2nd round pick (59th overall), 2011 4th round pick (118th overall), 2011 4th round pick (124th overall), 2012 1st round pick (22nd overall) for the Browns' 1st round pick (6th overall), which became Julio Jones.
The Browns turned those picks into:
-Phil Taylor (traded ATL 1st round pick, 26th overall (Jonathan Baldwin) and 2011 third round pick, 70th overall (Justin Houston) to the Chiefs)
-Greg Little (ATL 2011 2nd round pick, 59th overall)
-Jalil Brown (ATL 2011 4th round pick, 118th overall)
-Owen Marecic (ATL 2011 4th round pick, 124th overall)
-Brandon Weeden (ATL 2012 1st round pick, 22nd overall)
What was thought to be a great haul for the Browns became a ton of nothing. This is because they picked the wrong players and made a failed trade up of their own when they gave up quarterback-hunting Justin Houston and Jonathan Baldwin for Phil Taylor. It doesn't matter if you get more tickets if you don't know what to do with them. Consequently, the Falcons won this trade and gained an approximate value of 42 compared to the Browns' 32, but it's important to mention that if the Browns didn't trade for Taylor the approximate value scoreboard would have been 56 to 42.
The last window to analyze this trade through is to look at the other receivers the Falcons could have taken with pick 26.
|4||114||JAX||Cecil Shorts III||14||54||198||2,579||13|
Just like in 2008, Green and Jones have been the best receivers in this class. Torrey Smith and Randall Cobb both have been really good. There's just a gap between being an All-Pro and a Pro Bowler that puts Green and Jones ahead. The other receiver Atlanta could have waited and taken in the first round, Jonathan Baldwin, wasn't any good, and no one else in the draft carved out an NFL career except for Cecil Shorts.
The Falcons had a need entering the 2011 draft with two transcendent talents available. They were able to move up and snag Jones, and so far it has worked. After a breakout 2012 where he caught 10 touchdowns on 79 catches for 1,198 yards, a season cut short in 2013 due to a fractured foot when he was leading the league in receptions, and a fully healthy bounce back 2014 (104 catches, 1,593 yards, 6 TD, 356 DYAR (7th) that put him back in the NFL lexicon, this season is looking to be Julio Jones' best yet.
At the moment, Jones is the star of a 4-0 Atlanta team that has the 4th best offense according to DVOA. The table below showcases his individual stats, the league leader in each category, and whoever is behind him when he owns the top spot.
|Receptions||38 (1st)||Antonio Brown 34 (2nd)|
|Targets||52 (2nd)||DeAndre Hopkins 80 (1st)|
|Catch %||73.1% (6th)||Larry Fitzgerald 81.1% (1st)|
|Yds||478 (T-1st)||Antonio Brown 478 (T-1st)|
|Yds/G||119.5 (T-1st)||Antonio Brown 119.5 (T-1st)|
||Larry Fitzgerald 5 (1st)|
|DYAR||173 (2nd)||Larry Fitzgerald 200 (1st)|
|DVOA||29.3% (8th)||James Jones 95.2% (1st)|
Catch % ranking is based on a minimum of 30 targets
So far this season, Jones is the best receiver in the NFL. He's leading the NFL in catches and yards, and is second in the NFL in targets, touchdowns and total value. Additionally, Jones makes Matt Ryan a better player, and his quarterback has these splits when throwing to him compared to everyone else.
|To Julio Jones||38||52||73.1%||478||4||0||9.2|
|To Everyone Else||58||91||63.7%||724||2||2||7.95|
Numbers only provide the backdrop to Julio Jones's season. They are the shell Venus crawled out from, or the mirror Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife held hands in front of. They only offer a backdrop or baseline to put a figure around to see what he has done this season, but for one to truly understand how good Jones has been this year they need to see live examples to go along with the googly-eye numbers.
Julio Jones's game starts with his slant route. Of Jones's 52 targets 10 of the routes he's run have been slants.
On these plays, Jones has caught 6 passes for 72 yards. This route works because of Ryan's accuracy, and Jones's ability to get open quickly.
The Falcons are in an off-set I backfield set, and their receiver formation is balanced in 2-2-1 personnel (2 running backs, 2 receivers, 1 tight end). Jones is wide left, and matched up all by himself with Nolan Carroll II.
Once Matt Ryan gets the snap he immediately looks left. Jones is the first read in Ryan's progression, and he's usually the last. Jones is open in the amount of time it takes for the ball to travel from the center to Ryan. Carroll II still has his right foot planted as Jones is breaking inside.
In the big picture the offensive line is run blocking and running a zone play. The guard is cutting the defensive tackle, and the center is heading to the second level. The backfield is attacking the line of scrimmage just like a zone play too. It's a play action pass without wasting time with the play fake. This allows Ryan to get the defense to flow away from Jones while still having the ability to throw the ball quickly.
In addition to how easy and quickly it is for Jones to get open this play is an example of Ryan's accuracy. The Eagles are in the perfect defense to stop Jones on this play. The outside linebacker is sitting in zone and playing exactly where Jones is running his route. It doesn't matter though. Ryan is an expert at throwing to a spot instead of to a man. With Jones's speed Ryan can throw side arm around the defender and to a spot where the linebacker can't make a play on the ball.
Jones catches the pass, continues running past Carroll, and picks up thirteen yards before colliding with the safety.
Jones has been so good, and so much better than everyone else that he's forced Roddy White to complain about touches, and that he desires more passes to come his way. In an interview this week he said, "We've watched the film weeks and weeks and that's not a problem, me not getting open. I'm open, but it's not in the progression. Matt's not looking at it, and that's the type of guy he is. He's a 1-2-3 progression guy. We don't get off script, which is good. We've been winning that way for a very long time, so we've got to be consistent."
The problem for White is that, just like the previous play, Jones is usually the first progression, and gets open like the speed of light. He's always open. The only way White can get the ball more is if he ties Julio up and leaves him in the trunk of his car. White is like Chief in the Fox and the Hound. He's the old mutt who's been around forever and has seen his best days already pass before him. And now that Jones has grown out of his floppy skin and developed into the best receiver in the game White is forever stuck in the backseat at the age of 33 while Jones gains all the touches, scratches and admiration.
Here in the first quarter against the Giants with 3:38 remaining we see another example Jones being used in the quick game. This play isn't a screen, but it still shows how Julio operates in the open field. First off, Jones is a half man half horse. He's a centaur who's full of power that tramples to full speed immediately. A straight line of reckless sprinting and asteroid power plummeting into the crust of the Earth. There's nothing elusive about him. He just runs around and through defenders.
Pre-snap we see that the corner back who's covering Jones is blitzing so the safety will roll over in coverage against Jones. The receiver is running into the flat.
Ryan recognizes the blitz immediately and pulls back the play fake.
He throws out to Jones who has about ten yards between him and Landon Collins (#21).
Atlanta's best receiver makes a quick stutter step...
...that doesn't fool Collins at all. This doesn't affect Jones. He simply runs right into Collins.
Then carries him with him as he breaks toward the sideline to get away from the rest of the defense in pursuit.
Jones is finished off by the two other Giants defenders.
There's not an elusive bone in his body. You won't see Jones make some nifty jukes like Antonio Brown. He catches, hits full speed, and tries to run past or through defenders.
Even when Jones is running a route not destined for him to get into space he still makes the most of every catch he gets. No matter the route he takes every opportunity to pick up extra yards. He never scampers out of bounds, and relishes taking on defenders.
This is another quick route against the Cowboys where he's playing against man coverage in the form of Brandon Carr. Jones is running a quick comeback route where he will cut back towards the sideline.
Carr tries to jam Jones at the line. Julio takes an outside release.
Carr's punch doesn't deter Jones at all. WR #11 is already even with Carr, and in the NFL with limited windows, Jones is open.
Ryan brings the ball back to throw before Julio makes his cut. This is another example that will hurt White's feelings. Ryan stares down Jones, and waits for him to be open.
Carr continues running up the field while Jones cuts back to the ball. This is another one of Jones's skills. He doesn't wait for the football to come to him. On every throw he attacks the ball and catches with his hands instead of his body.
After being even with Carr, Jones now has a two yard gap between him and the ball as it streaks to him. It's incredible how much separation Jones can get on this route. He runs eight yards, cuts to the ball, and opens up the field. All this comes from a simple comeback route.
After he catches the ball he plants instantly to turn up field. Instead of just taking the eight yards and walking out of bounds to set up a nice 3rd and 2 for Atlanta, Jones attacks Carr.
When he cuts he wheels right around him. Carr has simply stood in the same spot as Jones takes three steps to his one. It's insane how much quicker he is than this starting corner back.
At the end of the play he lowers his shoulder and piles into the safety Byron Jones (#31).
Again, there's nothing cute or fancy about what Jones does when he gets the ball. He makes his catch and then runs right around the corner to pick up the first down. He goes after anyone and everyone in YAC situations, and most of the time he picks up extra yards simply by being a better athlete than everyone else on the field.
Like most receivers the majority of Jones's catches come in the shorter part of the field. Last season according to Football Outsiders 34% of his targets came on routes categorized as short. These quick routes pick up positive clumps of yards and keeps the offense moving. They also set up the intermediate and deeper routes as well.
This season Jones has been targeted three times on fade routes. Jones has caught all three of these passes for 103 yards, which comes out to 34.33 yards per attempt. Additionally, all three of these fade routes have come in advantageous situations where Jones is all alone against press man coverage.
His first touchdown this season came on a fade route against the Eagles in the second quarter with :51 left. On the left side of the formation the Falcons are in a bunch formation. This formation draws three defenders in man coverage, and a safety playing at linebacker depth in zone coverage to help out. As a result, Jones is one vs. one with a safety in the middle of the field who can't help out Byron Maxwell.
Maxwell is trying to press the receiver while Julio breaks outside.
Like Carr earlier, Maxwell's punch doesn't affect Jones. He pushes and gets a hand on him, but Jones isn't knocked off his route at all. He stays strong and keeps on the same course.
Julio cuts up field with Maxwell's hips turn towards him. Maxwell isn't back pedaling he's just holding onto Jones. But like every other corner back in the league he's not stronger than Jones. He can't stifle him. He can't knock him off his line. Consequently, he's shuffling as Jones revs his engine.
Matt Ryan is the other key to this play. He uses his eyes to pull the safety away from the right side of the field. He brings the safety's attention to the bunched receivers who already have four defenders in the area. Because of this manipulation Maxwell is on an island with Jones while the other three receivers have the attention of five defenders.
When Ryan releases the ball Jones is even with Maxwell, and is NFL open. The safety realizes he's made a huge mistake.
Now Maxwell has his back to the football, which is the worst position for a defensive back to be in. At this position they can only act as a wall between the ball. They can't play the ball without drawing a penalty unless they hold their arms straight above their head like Roy Hibbert. Additionally, because he begins his run from a shuffle compared to Jones who's been sprinting straight ahead, there's no way he can catch up to the ball unless the throw is poor.
Ryan makes a perfect throw and Jones teeters down the sideline three yards ahead of Maxwell.
The next time Jones was targeted in this game was with 8:37 left in the fourth quarter, when again, Ryan completed a fade route against Maxwell who was in press man coverage. Like the previous play, Julio doesn't let the jam affect him and simply takes an outside release around him (Link to video of play).
The third fade route came against the Giants. New York did a fine job locking down Jones. They played a lot of zone coverage that minimized Atlanta's quick passing game, baited Ryan into throwing into double coverage, and created a lot of traffic on intermediate routes. But here with 1:53 left in the fourth quarter and a 20-17 lead the Giants blitzed their nickle back for some ungodly reason.
With the nickle back rushing the passer, the safety rolls over to play man coverage against the slot receiver. This then leaves Jones in press man coverage against Prince Amukamara.
Like the last two plays Jones beats the corner off the line and takes an outside release.
Amukamara tries to jam Jones, but he is beaten so quickly off the line that he can't even get his hands on him.
After seven yards Amukamara is two steps behind Jones with no safety help over the top. Ryan recognizes this instantly and begins his throwing motion.
The rest of these stills are just Amukamara chasing after Julio. Opposing defensive backs are the only thing Jones has ever run from.
On all three of these plays we see the same thing. Jones's strength keeps defensive backs from pushing him off the line in press coverage. His speed and agility leads to him running right by them as their feet are stuck once the press fails. Ryan instantly recognizes the one vs. one match up, makes the throw on time, and puts the ball in the perfect spot to hit Jones in stride. It's nasty, just nasty, how good he is. (Link to video of play)
Because of Jones's ability to demolish press coverage corner backs will sit back and cower in fear, and give him large cushions.
Before the snap Jones is in man coverage with a deep cushion against Brandon Carr.
There's nearly ten yards between him and the corner, and Carr is back pedaling.
Jones cuts inside on his deep post route, and the separation has decreased by six yards to a paltry four.
Ryan attempts his throw right when Jones makes his break.
Matt throws low and the ball bounces right in front of a diving Jones.
Defensive backs are willing to hand Jones fifteen yards with safety help because of his speed and their fear of getting beat deep. That's more trembling than Katie and Micah do in Paranormal Activity after twenty days with a demon for a roommate.
I've touched on this briefly and it needs to be expanded on. Matt Ryan and Julio Jones have one of those weird quarterback wide receiver connections where if one stubs his toe the other feels it too. The timing, the ball placement, the accuracy, the pre-snap recognition, all of it--it's remarkable.
After charting I found that Matt Ryan's accuracy when throwing to Jones is even better than the 73% face value. Of his fifty-one attempts, four were batted at the line, six were defensed, one was dropped, and four were incomplete because of missed throws. Additionally, 70.5% of his passes I marked as a good throw. So of all the throws Ryan has made to Jones only 7.8% were incomplete because of a missed throw. With Ben Roethlisberger being injured, this is the best quarterback receiver combo in the NFL.
Matt Ryan and Julio Jones spend every Friday night soaking inside of his and his bathtubs while they hold hands on top of a mountain, and of all the plays, this one best exemplifies the chemistry they have.
Julio is running a deep out against man coverage. Ryan let's go of the ball towards the sideline at the same moment Jones makes his break. The ball is placed in a perfect position that gives Jones just enough space to get both feet in. It's a thing of beauty.
The other aspect of the offense I have yet to mention that has been hanging around in the background and affecting every play like the Illuminati is offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. He puts Jones in favorable situations through motion, route combinations, play action, and where Jones is lined up on the field.
Before the snap the Falcons are in a balanced wide receiver formation with Jones in the left slot. Ryan then puts the slot receiver on the right side in motion to turn the formation into Trips left. This seems like a minor detail, which it is, but just like Ahab throwing his pipe into the sea it is one that means so much. By pulling the receiver to the other side of the formation it brings the corner from the other side and that clears out space for the post route Jones runs.
The motion also confuses the read for the safety. The Cowboys are in cover one where the safety plays deep to patrol the deep part of the field while everyone else plays man coverage. The safety has three players on his side to account for, and can't direct all of his attention on Julio. Lastly, by playing in the slot Jones is matched up against Tyler Patmon, a second year player who went undrafted. Like the aligning of the planets everything is set up perfectly for Quintorris Lopez Jones.
Jones has taken three steps and Patmon is already beat. It can't be seen via images, but in can in video format. At the end of the play pay attention to Julio's first two steps. He makes a slight step to the left that gets the corner to take two shuffle steps toward the sideline. When Jones starts running up field like a salmon Patmon is over striding to recover back inside while Jones is getting to full speed. All it takes is two steps for Patmon to get torched.
Patmon's back is already to the quarterback and is running after Jones.
When Jones cuts inside he leaves Patmon in the dust, and the safety, J.J. Wilcox, is coming across the field after Ryan throws the ball.
When Julio gets the ball he's two yards away from Patmon, but he has Wilcox coming after him. The problem for Dallas is that Wilcox is coming down hill after Julio. WR #11 is too fast for Wilcox to get at this angle.
Wilcox dives at Jones's ankles, but he's too far behind the receiver, and Jones is an immovable force at the speed he's going at. It's going to take a lot more than some ankle nibbling to take him down.
Patmon takes a decent angle in pursuit of the ball carrier. But, yet again, like the rhetorical device repetition, Jones is too fast, and outruns Patmon to his spot.
Julio displays his balance and tip toes down the sideline for a 45 yard touchdown that makes the game 28-24 Dallas (Video of play).
This pre-play set is a subtle and perfect example why Jones uses the strong word genius to describe his offensive coordinator.
Dear loyal reader, I hate to break it to you, but the thousands of words you just read have all been a gigantic waste of time in your fleeting life. None of it matters. The nuances and the numbers don't mean a thing because when it comes to Julio Jones it has, and always will be about his athleticism. You should have just scrolled down to this section and glowed in the awe of the natural ability he was born with as the frames rapidly play one after the other in succession to create a moving picture.
Here the falcons are running play action from their end zone against the Giants, who are in zone coverage. The safety screams out of the backfield like a shark in a bath of blood when he sees the play fake. This hole in the zone leaves an empty space for the curl route Jones is running. The safety fights off a cut black and recovers nicely. He then sits underneath the fluttering football waiting for what should be an easy interception. However, nothing is easy for defenders when Jones is involved.
Like a DeAndre Jordan put back dunk he comes over the top, leaps over the defender, and snatches the ball at its highest point. This play is like two people throwing a football in a swimming pool until someone leaps from the concrete and steals it midway in flight. Jones is in a different world athletically. He makes the greatest athletes in the world look like they are slogging away hip deep in water as he pounces from solid ground.
This next play depicts Jones's straight line speed. In the redzone against the Cowboys, Shanahan has Julio come from behind the formation and run from one side to the other behind the offensive line. In the process he outruns three Cowboys defenders who are helpless as he gallops into the endzone for a game sealing touchdown.
This isn't human. This is something from Planet Earth. This is the cheetah chasing down the gazelle.
As I mentioned earlier, I don't believe trading down is the wrong strategy. I think it is right move for teams most of the time. Yet, I also think there are times when trading up should be used. When the Falcons gave up all those picks four years ago, they were coming off a 13-3 "we need to win now" season, had an inherent need for a receiver to play on the other side of Roddy White, and there were two players with a pedigree exceeding every other receiver in the draft. They mortgaged the future and five spins of the wheel for someone they thought could be a possible Hall of Famer. Jones' performance this year is exactly what the Falcons imagined back in 2011. The seeds of dreams have turned into the fruits of reality. They have the best receiver in the league, playing with a top five quarterback in his prime, and as a result the Falcons are a for-real 4-0.
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