Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith maintained that Julio Jones is progressing well coming off season-ending foot surgery. But Smith also said the team would proceed with caution regarding the star wide receiver.
Smith, speaking with reporters Wednesday morning at the owners' meetings in Orlando, addressed a variety of topics. ESPN.com reporter Tania Ganguli, who was on the scene, listened in on Smith's conversation about Jones.
"He’s ahead of schedule," Smith told the group. "Julio’s started his running program with the athletic performance department. We anticipate he’ll be ready to go 100 percent. We’ll get him going at some point in time here in the offseason. We’ll be very careful. Our no. 1 goal is to have him ready to participate in training camp."
Jones hasn't been on the field since suffering the injury running a "go" route in a loss to the New York Jets last October. He had surgery on Oct. 14. Before going down, he had 41 catches for 580 yards and two touchdowns in five games. In other words, he was on pace for more more than 130 catches and 1,800 receiving yards.
"Injuries are part of the game," Smith said. "You gotta be able to overcome them. That was one of the things that I don’t think we did very well. Julio, I think, is a special receiver. I think he had 41 catches in five games, so he was on pace to have a monster season at that point in time when he went down. His skill set is very special. There’s very few guys in this league that can do the same things he can do in terms of his route-running, speed. He competes for the ball when the ball’s in the air."
The coaches in the NFC South, who are preparing to face him twice this coming season, understand what Jones' return means to the Falcons. They likely wouldn't have fallen to 4-12 last season had he been in the lineup.
"Whenever you talk about a special player in the division on a team, things change automatically," Tampa Bay coach Lovie Smith told ESPN.com regarding Jones’ return. "You just look at all that Julio brings to the table. Look at this toughness. Yeah, it’s easy to talk about him as a receiver, catching the ball and all that. But man, this is a tough guy. He’s just a special talent. There are some special receivers in the league. Of course, Calvin Johnson is special. But Julio is big, fast, strong, tough. He’s got everything you’re looking for. Atlanta’s automatically a lot better just based on him being back on the field."