ALLEN PARK, Mich. – Paul Worrilow would look up in practice at a ball thrown by Matt Ryan that looked like an overthrow. Then, when the play looked lost for the Atlanta Falcons offense, Julio Jones would still be running.
It was a practice – one of many throughout a season – but Jones just kept working, kept making plays. Never mind it didn’t count. Jones, apparently, didn’t care. There was a chance to make a play, so why wouldn’t he make it?
“The way he’ll go after a long ball, you think it’s out of reach, you know,” said Worrilow, a Detroit Lions linebacker who played with Jones in Atlanta. “You wouldn’t just think much if he didn’t go after it, because it might be too far away.
“But he’s taking off. He’s going for it. He might lay out in practice, just athletic stuff like that.”
Worrilow got used to seeing that in Atlanta – both in practice and in games. It’s what made Jones one of the NFL’s top two receivers in the league with Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown. And it’s going to be something Worrilow sees up close again Sunday when Jones faces the Lions.
Defending Jones is unlike most receivers in the NFL. His combination of 6-foot-3, 220 pounds with 4.4-second 40-yard dash speed and impeccable hands makes him a cover that is next to impossible. Where some receivers have height or speed or great hands, Jones has the rare combination of all three.
And that can be nightmarish.
“A lot of times you’d say tight ends have an advantage because they are so big,” safety Glover Quin said. “The catch radius is huge. So he’s the size of a tight end, fast as a speedy receiver. So to have the guy that can catch every ball, catch the short pass and go 80 yards, big, strong, fast, physical guy.
“He’s a tough task and he makes tough catches. He’s a challenge.”
It forces the Lions' defensive backs – perhaps more than most other receivers in the league – to know where Jones lines up each play. It’s not clear what Detroit’s plan will be with defending Jones – be it having Darius Slay shadow Jones or go based on where Jones lines up, but he’s the type of receiver Quin is going to account for every play pre-play.
That he can run every route – and run it well – makes him difficult for defensive backs, who can sometimes use film study throughout a week to find tendencies from receivers about what he might run on a certain play. Jones doesn’t have those giveaways.
He’s also an impossible person to prepare for in practice. The Lions used to be in a unique position when Calvin Johnson was still playing in that they faced a receiver with similar size and skill to Jones every day in practice. Johnson retired after the 2015 season – although four of Detroit’s five starting defensive backs all went against Johnson in practice for at least a year.
So they have that experience to fall back on, because Johnson and Jones are similar. Much of the way players describe Jones is how they used to praise Johnson.
And Jones has been the player who has most often been the threat to Johnson’s single-season receiving mark of 1,964 yards. He has come the closest, too, with a 1,871-yard season in 2015. It’s the second-best single receiving season of all-time. Through two weeks of this season, only Antonio Brown, with 244 yards, is on a pace to catch either Johnson or Jones.
Of the top 25 receiving seasons of all-time, only six players have more than one: Marvin Harrison, Torry Holt, Andre Johnson, Calvin Johnson, Brown and Jones. That’s what the Lions have to deal with Sunday.
“He does everything excellent. There’s only a few guys made like that and, you know, he’s one of those guys that’s definitely made like that,” cornerback Quandre Diggs said. “You know, from everything I hear he puts in the work each and every day, so he deserves all the credit and all the fame and the big deals, the accolades, he deserves all of that.
“You never want to take that for granted because going out and playing against one of the best, that’s something you’ll be able to tell your kids later on in life, that you were able to line up against one of the best and go play him.”