Falcons still can field a good offense without Julio Jones

Arthur Smith did not want to talk much about Julio Jones on Tuesday. Smith is the Falcons’ head coach, and Jones no longer is a Falcons wide receiver. Smith again expressed respect for what Jones did for the Falcons and then pretty much was done with the topic.

ExploreFalcons depth chart without Julio Jones

“I don’t worry about players I never coached,” Smith said at the start of the team’s mandatory minicamp.

That’s fair enough. Jones is an all-time Falcons great, but he plays for the Titans now. Irreconcilable differences between player and franchise, as well as salary-cap pressures, led the Falcons to trade Jones this week. Smith wants to move on from that drama, which became a farce after Jones unwittingly declared on live television that he wanted out.

So let’s talk about the wide receivers who are with the Falcons this week. What is Smith’s evaluation of that group?

Smith: “Like with all these spots, I don’t put too much thought in the spring. ... You can get a lot of false narratives by evaluating just spring. This is just part of the process. Really, until we play real football in the preseason or have some real practices, then I can give you a better evaluation.”

Well, that’s just ... refreshing, actually. Smith wants to see some action before he talks much about his players. Questions to Smith about specific players and positions elicit nonspecific answers about all players at every position. That makes for boring quotes. It makes sense for Smith who, after all, inherited most of the roster.

Besides, what’s Smith supposed to say about Jones leaving? He and first-year general manager Terry Fontenot couldn’t smooth over the franchise’s relationship with Jones. Now that Jones is gone, Smith can’t plausibly sell the idea that the Falcons’ offense will be fine without him. Better to wait for evidence to the contrary.

It’s plausible that we’ll see it once the Falcons start playing games. They still can field a good offense in 2021. Maybe my outlook is too sunny. I tend to give teams every benefit of the doubt in the offeason, which is the time for optimism. But I don’t think it’s a reach to say the Falcons can be good on offense without their best receiver.

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Falcons coach Arthur Smith comments on the development of the wide receiver groups ahead of mandatory minicamp.

Look at it this way. Last season the Falcons ranked 21st in offensive efficiency per Football Outsiders, which adjusts for opponent and game situation (down and distance, score, field location and time remaining in game). The Falcons were 13th in passing efficiency. They managed that despite poor offensive line play, no credible running game and Jones missing seven games because of injury (and he left two of the games he played in the first half).

With Jones hobbled, the Falcons were forced to press marginal receivers into larger roles. Now more of those targets will go to rookie Kyle Pitts, a great prospect. If the Falcons manufacture a respectable running game, they have enough talent to flourish in Smith’s offense, which is heavy on passing off run fakes.

Pitts is the reward for the Falcons being bad in 2020. He’s a tight end, not a wide receiver. That’s a distinction without much difference. Pitts split outside frequently at Florida, and he’s sure to do the same with the Falcons. Pitts is 6-foot-6, 240 pounds, but he’s a smooth athlete who caught just about every pass thrown near his massive wingspan last season.

Smith will call offensive plays for the Falcons after doing it the past two seasons for the Titans. He no doubt has spent considerable time thinking about lining Pitts up on the outside. It is just as certain that he will not be sharing those thoughts publicly.

“We try to mix and match,” he said. “That’s how we’ll play.”

Pitts is one reason to believe the Falcons’ offense can be good without Jones. Calvin Ridley is another. He got more targets with Jones injured last season and emerged as a true No. 1 wide receiver. Russell Gage, a good No. 3 in 2021, moves up to No. 2. The Falcons lost their best pass-catcher, but they are deep with them.

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New Falcons coach Arthur Smith addresses the void left in Atlanta's offense with the trade of wide receiver Julio Jones to the Tennessee Titans.

Quarterback Matt Ryan showed he has plenty left when he closed 2020 strong. Running back Mike Davis was a good bargain signing in free agency. The big question for the Falcons offense in 2021 is the same as it was in 2020, 2019 and 2018.

That’s how long the Falcons have been sending out subpar lines. Ex-coordinators Steve Sarkisian and Dirk Koetter weren’t great, but they (and Ryan) were stymied by poor blocking. The same will happen to Smith if that unit doesn’t get considerably better.

Smith had bruising running back Derrick Henry in Tennessee. The Falcons don’t have a powerful ball carrier, but that’s not necessary for Smith’s offense to work. It’s more important to form the offensive line into a cohesive, effective unit. Henry became a star once that happened in Tennessee.

Smith said he can’t truly evaluate his offensive line here until they start blocking in practice. Pro Football Focus ranks the unit 23rd in the NFL for 2021. That assessment is focused on individual performances. Line play often is more about the sum of the parts. Young players are projected to start at three of five positions for the Falcons, so there’s hope for significant improvement.

The Falcons have enough talented skill players to score if they can block. None of them are as good as Jones. The Falcons traded him along with a sixth-round pick for second- and fourth-round picks. The deal was a reflection of circumstances, not Jones’ true value. The Titans got one of the NFL’s best wide receivers for a pittance.

The Falcons moved on from a player who no longer wanted to be here. It will makes Smith’s pledge to win now harder. Netting one draft pick doesn’t do much for his plan to build for the future. But the Falcons aren’t doomed to be bad on offense just because their best receiver is off to Nashville.