FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- If Julio Jones didn't have the league's full attention after last season's franchise-record setting performance (1,593 yards), he certainly has it now.
The Atlanta Falcons wide receiver's 34 catches through the first three games are the most in such a stretch in NFL history. His 440 receiving yards put him on pace for 2,347 yards, which would shatter Calvin Johnson's single-season record of 1,964. Not to mention he has four touchdowns, just two fewer than he had in 15 games last season.
So what can opposing defenses do the remainder of the season to keep the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Jones in check? Well, a prayer or two might help.
"He’s overall, I think, no lie, he’s probably the overall best receiver in the NFL, as far as size and speed and being able to catch the ball and go and getting it vertical," said Browns cornerback Joe Haden, who contended with Jones last season. "Coming out of his breaks, speed and being able to build up, Calvin. But Julio seems like the total package, just being strong, fast, big, can run all the routes. I think one thing that people don’t take is his speed to get up top. His vertical speed is really, really good."
With the help of NFL Nation reporters Pat McManamon, Jeff Legwold, Josh Weinfuss and Sheil Kapadia, we asked some of the league's top cornerbacks, including Haden, to break down Jones and how to defend him. Here is what those players came up with:
Before Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson faced Jones last season, the four-time Pro Bowler boasted about winning the majority of battles against Jones in college, when Peterson was at LSU and Jones at Alabama. Well, Jones went out and had a then-career high 189 receiving yards on 10 catches against Peterson and the Cardinals, including a 32-yard touchdown reception going one-on-one against Peterson. The Falcons won the game 29-18. (Jones pushed his career high with 259 receiving yards against Green Bay the very next week.)
What would be Peterson's approach to defending Jones the next time around?
"You've got to disrupt the timing between him and the quarterback; that's the best way to get it, because he's got the best ball skills in the game," Peterson said. "If the ball's in the air and you don't disrupt the timing between him and the quarterback to give him a free release and a free go, nine times out of 10 he's going to come down with the ball. ... You may have to play a lot of 55 catch against him: keep a guy underneath, keep a guy over the top."
Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman, a two-time Pro Bowl pick, last played against Jones in the 2012 playoffs. Jones had six catches for 59 yards with a long play of 21 yards in the Falcons' win. On the very first play of the game, Sherman went stride for stride with Jones down the right sideline and perfectly timed his jump to knock away a deep ball from Matt Ryan. "He's a hard-working guy," Sherman said of Jones. "He's probably one of the more blue-collar receivers in the league. He works hard every play. He plays hard, blocks hard, runs his routes as hard as he can to the best of his ability. And that's what you've got to respect about a guy who plays 60 out of 60 plays at 100 percent."
So how would Sherman slow down Jones?
"Just returning that effort," Sherman said. "You give him 100 percent every play. It's going to be a battle. He's going to be a great athlete. You're going to win some. He's going to win some. You've got to expect that. And the moment you take a play off is the moment he gets by you."
Two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Aqib Talib was on the field for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2011 when Jones, then a rookie, had his first 100-yard game. Jones caught six passes for 115 yards in the game, which the Buccaneers won 16-13. "I faced Julio a ton and he's right there, he's the same," said Talib, now with the Denver Broncos. "Big, fast, can't really jam him because [he's] so strong. And you better worry about the deep ball, because he's like Calvin [Johnson], like D.T. [Demaryius Thomas] because they can run like short cats and go get the ball with all that size.
"All of those guys -- Julio, Calvin, D.T. -- man, they put you in the same boat. That's the same type of receiver. Their catch radius, they don't really have to be open to make a play on the ball."
* Back to Haden, a two-time Pro Bowler who squared off with Jones last season at the Georgia Dome. In that game, Jones had five catches for 68 yards and a touchdown while being targeted 13 times as the Browns won 26-24. Jones scored a 24-yard touchdown on a crossing route with Haden trailing from behind.
"At any time, he can change a game," Haden said of Jones. "It’s never really going to be domination against Julio. He’s going to be able get his plays. You’re never going to be able to stop him from getting all of his. I would say you have to put somebody over him and under him. Double-covering him is the best way. I’d just know it’s going to be a day. He’s going to get his, and I’m going to get mine."
Technique-wise, Haden explained his approach toward covering Jones.
"You try to jam him, but you try to stay top down," Haden said. "You want him catching the ball coming back to the quarterback. Comebacks and curls and hitches and things like that that won’t beat you. You got to have a little give and take. Take away the post and fades and things like that, kind of curls and comebacks and try to make plays on the ball like that. You have to play Julio top down if you’re the only one guarding him."
Haden, Sherman, Peterson and Talib won't have to face Jones this season, unless it's in the postseason. Guys such as Indianapolis' Vontae Davis and Carolina's Josh Norman might be in for long days, considering the high level Jones is playing at right now.