It’s Time to Stop Doubting Julio Jones (Fantasy Football)

by David McCaffery | @mccaffmedia | Featured Writer
Jun 8, 2018

Despite his disappointing 2017, it would be unwise to avoid Julio Jones in 2018

“Three touchdowns?” That’s the familiar battle cry of anyone who was burned in 2017 by the less-than-desirable scoring output produced by perennial Pro Bowl wide receiver Julio Jones. “Spend a high first-round fantasy pick on a receiver that only found the end zone three times?

No thanks, not again,” they say. Indeed, it seems like the fantasy community is pretty angry, and there’s a gathering school of thought that in 2018, Jones should be avoided altogether in the opening round. But is this a smart strategy?

After all, we’re talking about a man who is the NFL’s all-time leader in receiving yards per game (95.1). A man who just joined Marvin Harrison as the only other wideout to record four consecutive 80-plus catch, 1,400-plus yard seasons. A five-time Pro Bowler. A two-time All-Pro. Is it really time to give up on him as an elite WR1 in fantasy football?

No way. Not yet. Not Julio.

Yes, the Atlanta Falcons offense struggled mightily in 2017, and I’m not here to tell you it was because of Kyle Shanahan’s departure, Matt Ryan’s regression after an MVP campaign, or growing pains as a result of the implementation of Steve Sarkisian’s new system. The full explanation simply can’t be known for sure.

However, what is indisputable is that the team struggled to finish drives and put points on the board for much of the season. But none of this was Jones’ fault. In fact, he was the same stud he’s always been, even if that has become lost in a sea of negative conversation. It’s time to end that chatter, though, and more importantly, it’s time to stop falling victim to false narratives.

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Years of Excellence
Currently riding one of the most impressive stretches of production any receiver has ever enjoyed, it shouldn’t be necessary to point out what Jones has accomplished over the first seven seasons of his NFL career. However, drastic times call for drastic measures, and there is a legitimate need to illustrate why he remains as reliable a fantasy contributor as ever.

In order to make any determinations about his future, it’s important to take a look at the entirety of his performance, so buckle up, because we’re about ready to take off.

Note: Points per game figures are for standard formats, and five or more games must have been played to qualify. Fantasy totals are courtesy of Fantasy Data.

Season Games Receptions Yards Touchdowns Yards Per Catch Points Per Game Finish
2011 13 54 959 8 17.8 WR9
2012 16 79 1,198 10 15.2 WR9
2013 5 41 580 2 14.1 WR4
2014 15 104 1,593 6 15.3 WR6
2015 16 136 1,871 8 13.8 WR2
2016 14 83 1,409 6 17 WR4
2017 16 88 1,444 3 16.4 WR7

Taking a look at this table, there are many conclusions to be drawn, but let’s start with the obvious one: Jones’ burst out of the gate as a top-10 fantasy wideout in his rookie year and hasn’t looked back since. Through seven seasons, he has always been a premium option at the position and has produced with the sort of consistency that virtually no player in history has ever been able to.

For the moment, let’s throw away his injury-shortened 2013 season where he suited up for only five contests. Even though he was an absolute stud during those games, it’s hard to draw any conclusions from such an abridged campaign. But taking a look at the rest of the chart, the only thing that stands out from the norm is the low touchdown total from last season.

In every other aspect, Jones was the same dominant player he’d always been, with elite numbers across the board. In short, his low touchdown total was a product of nothing more than variance.

The Facts About Touchdowns
There is no more volatile and unpredictable statistic in professional football than touchdown output. Far too many variables contribute to a player’s performance in this category. Jones’ closest NFL comparable player is probably Calvin Johnson, another dominant wideout with a Hall of Fame-caliber blend of size and speed. Johnson, who is generally regarded as a prolific touchdown scorer, proved positive of how erratic scoring rates can be.

While Megatron had four seasons with 12 or more touchdowns during his nine-year career, he also had three others with five or less. When Johnson broke the single-season receiving yardage record in 2012, he was peppered with 204 targets, yet only found the end zone five times.

How is that possible? The answer is simple. It’s variance, and it can be maddening.

During that season, Johnson was tackled inside the five-yard line eight times. Eight. It’s impossible to game-plan for something that flukey when you’re setting your draft board.

While Jones has never established himself as a touchdown producer like Johnson, he had never found the end zone fewer than six times in any healthy season before 2017. Thus, it’s pretty clear that last year was an outlier. Add three more touchdowns to his totals, and how much better does his season look? In fact, had Jones only managed to reel in the now infamous 39-yard touchdown he dropped against the Carolina Panthers in Week 9, he would have vaulted all the way to the WR5 slot in per game scoring, and the perspective on his season would likely have changed considerably.

Jones has always been a yardage compiler, but his touchdown production has tended to fluctuate. It’s just the nature of the game. Positive regression is coming. It has to be, and it’s for this reason that he’s being undervalued in early 2018 drafts.

Over-Correction and Misperception
Right now, Jones has an early second round Average Draft Position (13th overall) according to FantasyPros’ Consensus ADP. That doesn’t seem like a particularly bad ranking, but it’s still lower than it should be.

In recent years, the idea of eschewing running backs in favor of drafting wideouts in round one had gained a lot of momentum, but after last season’s perceived rushing revival, the market has over-corrected. No less than nine runners have first-round ADPs in 2018. That’s staggering.

Last year at this time, Jones was coming off an 83-catch, 1,409-yard, six-touchdown season, in which he produced 176.90 fantasy points. This year, he’s coming off an 88-catch, 1,444-yard, three-touchdown campaign, during which he racked up 163.90 fantasy points. Last season, he was a consensus top-four selection in fantasy drafts. In 2018, he finds himself outside the first round, despite producing virtually identical numbers. That makes no sense.

There’s also a perception that he’s a boom or bust option, who has a few monster games each season that are lost in a sea of mediocre performances. While his propensity for the occasional blow-up game does bring a minimal amount of validity to that statement (three career games with over 250 receiving yards), it’s not nearly as accurate as some would have you believe.

In fact, according to Graham Barfield, Jones has tallied double-digit PPR points in 79.1% of his games over the last three years, trailing only Antonio Brown’s 79.5%. In 2017 alone, he scored more than 10 points in 13 of 16 contests (81.3%) and cleared 60 receiving yards in 12 of them. For comparison, Brown scored more than 10 points in 11 of 14 games (78.6%) and surpassed 60 yards in 11 as well. While there’s no debate that Brown’s ceiling was considerably higher a season ago concerning consistency, Jones was right there with him.

For those who are concerned that the former Alabama standout might be set for a precipitous decline due to a history of lower leg injuries, the data suggests this isn’t imminent. In fact, his average of 16.4 yards per reception in 2017 was the third-highest of his career, a clear indicator that his explosion remains intact. At 29, he should still have at least one or two additional prime seasons in front of him.

If you’re worried about the team’s decision to select Calvin Ridley in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft, don’t be. Ridley is a solid player and should be a contributor for years to come, but he was drafted to complement Jones, not replace him. Fears about a potential holdout appear to have been decreased as well, as recent reports indicate Jones will report to mini-camp.

The Wrap
When assessing the career trajectory of Julio Jones, there is nothing to suggest he remains anything less than an elite NFL wide receiver, possessing both an incredibly dominant skill set and a remarkably lengthy resume. When looking at a premium fantasy asset at the receiver position, you want to see a high target share and a heavy dose of red zone looks. In 2017, Jones had a 28.6% target share (fourth-most) and 19 red zone targets (11th-most). Those are robust totals, and very few players in the game can boast that sort of volume.

Indeed, this is a man who has produced the second-highest single season receiving yardage total in league history (1,871) and has received 125-plus targets in each of his last five healthy seasons. Additionally, he remains tied to a durable top-10 NFL quarterback, with whom he has established incredible chemistry during their time together. All the elements are in place for continued success.

Fantasy players are often advised against chasing touchdowns. Jones is a near-ideal example of why this thought process is sound. On draft day, you have the opportunity to acquire the talents of this future Hall of Famer for a mere second-round selection.

Don’t listen to all the noise. Jones will see positive regression in the scoring department, and will otherwise remain the same dominant player he’s always been.

There is arguably no one available in your draft with his incredible combination of past production and statistical upside. Don’t miss out on value like this. It seldom comes along, and when it does, it needs to be capitalized on.

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David McCaffery is a correspondent at FantasyPros. For more from David, check out his archive or follow him @mccaffmedia.

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