Julio Jones impressed with Falcons rookie corner who challenged him

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Simply introducing himself to one of the best wide receivers in the game probably would have been the normal thing to do. But that might have thrown off Jordan Miller's swagger.

Instead, the boastful Atlanta Falcons rookie cornerback approached new teammate Julio Jones in the locker room this offseason with no hesitation -- well, maybe a little bit -- and challenged the six-time Pro Bowler.

"I hadn’t really met [Jones] yet," Miller said, "so basically, I was just like, 'Yo, what's good? I feel corny, but I'm trying to guard you.' And he was really cool about it. He was like, 'Oh yeah, you’re going to see how fast I go and how hard I go.' And then I was like, 'I'm excited to see it,' because putting my game against his, it's not going to do anything but help me defend anyone."

Miller picked Jones' brain for a moment, asking about the cornerbacks he had faced over the years. There wasn’t any specific corner Jones credited.

"He basically said no one could guard him," Miller said.

When asked this week if he told Miller he couldn’t be covered, Jones just smiled and kept walking. It was Jones who brought up the exchange between the two in the first place when asked about the rookie before last week’s preseason game at Miami.

"Jordan, his confidence is through the roof," Jones said. "He's one of those guys you have to keep beating because he’s going to keep coming back. I love his attitude. I love everything about him, the way he approaches the game, everything. And it’s rare that you see that in a younger guy. They try to feel things out.

"But him, since Day 1, he pulled me to the side one day, he was like, 'I want to cover you. I want to get better.' So for him to even have that mentality, that’s very impressive."

Miller, a fifth-round draft pick from the University of Washington, has opened more than just Jones’ eyes since stepping on the practice field with the veterans. Free safety Ricardo Allen, one of the most respected voices on the team, called Miller an "extremely confident playmaker." Coach Dan Quinn praised the 6-foot-1, 181-pound Miller for showing ball skills in practice and using his length to his advantage.

Defensive pass-game coordinator Jerome Henderson loves Miller’s competitiveness. That’s why Henderson isn’t shocked that Miller wants to cover Jones in practice.

"It doesn’t surprise me that he would think that way, and that’s kind of who he is and his mentality," Henderson said. "He’s always going to take the challenge and think that he’s up to any challenge. He’s not afraid of situations. He’s not afraid of the moment."

Miller isn’t shy about trash-talking, either.

"Oh, he talks a lot," Henderson said with a laugh. "I wouldn’t say it’s too much because each guy motivates himself differently. I don’t want to take that out of him because that’s who he is, and that’s what got him here today."

So, how did this self-assured, ball-hawking cornerback with 4.49 speed and a 37-inch vertical last until the 172nd pick in the draft? Washington defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake, who was on Falcons assistant head coach Raheem Morris' staff in Tampa Bay, blames injuries. Miller broke his leg and dislocated his ankle against Arizona State as a junior. Miller dealt with another ankle injury as a senior.

“If that injury hadn’t derailed him his junior year, it would have been hard to get him in the fifth round, the way the Falcons did," Lake said. "He was playing at a second-round level until he hurt himself his junior year."

The high praise Miller continues to receive doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be in the defensive rotation come the regular season. As Henderson said, both Miller and fellow rookie cornerback Kendall Sheffield have to "cut their teeth" on special teams first.

The Falcons appear content with Desmond Trufant and Isaiah Oliver as their starting outside corners. Damontae Kazee, who tied for the league lead with seven interceptions last season, has transitioned to nickel corner from free safety. Blidi-Wreh Wilson is another veteran cornerback in the mix and would probably be first up on the outside if anyone goes down.

Last season showed anyone down the roster could be called upon at any time as the Falcons lost starting safeties Allen and Keanu Neal to season-ending injuries. Kazee, a fifth-round pick just like Miller, stepped in for Allen and performed well, while the Falcons really never found a capable replacement for Neal.

"Guys are going to get nicked up," Henderson said. "We hope they don’t. We hope our starters play all year and they stay healthy. But if you looked at us last year, we were playing with guys we didn’t start the season thinking we were going to play with. The more you can train those guys to line them up so you can get them up to speed so when they go in, there’s not a drop-off, that’s what we’re trying to accomplish with them."

Miller still needs to show he can be physical despite his thin frame. He managed just six bench press reps at the combine. He can’t drop interceptions like he did in the second quarter of the Hall of Fame Game against the Broncos. And he has to learn from his mental mistakes, like last week against the Dolphins when he let receiver Preston Williams get on top of him because he slowed down.

As Miller matures, he could fight for playing time -- literally.

"He would get into the most scraps in practice over the last three years," Lake said. "Jordan got real competitive with the wideouts, pushing and shoving."

We’ll see how that goes over when Jones is the receiver lining up opposite Miller.