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Jones has earned respect of Falcons teammates, coaches

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By D. Orlando Ledbetter

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Arthur Blank's draft-day gift came wrapped in a nice silk bow tie.

Julio Jones, the fleet and powerful receiver from Foley, Ala., flashed his million dollar smile after being selected sixth overall in the NFL draft. He easily won for "best dressed," and he donned his Falcons cap while wearing a nice suit and a silver bow tie.

He exuded the style and class that the organization painstakingly has tried to project in its post-Michael Vick-Bobby Petrino era.

Jones, whom the Falcons paid dearly for in a trade with the Browns, is a low-key, soft-spoken young man with a level head.

Shortly after the draft, Jones spent a few days helping tornado victims who were recovering in an American Red Cross shelter in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

No one ordered him to do the work; he went of his own volition. He was in New York for the draft when the tornado that killed more than 230 people and left others homeless struck.

When he talked to Alabama head coach Nick Saban, "I was like, 'We've got to do something to give back to the community,' " Jones explained.

The compassionate Jones tossed boxes out of a truck, handed out T-shirts and did whatever he could to lift the spirits of the victims.

Helping out the victims was not out of character for Jones.

"He was always the best," said Queen Marvin, his mother. "He never gave me any problems. Oh man, I'm telling you. He was the best kid."

Marvin, who admits to being overprotective of Jones, would not let him play football at a young age.

"I thought he was going to get hurt," Marvin said. "He was so small then. Then when he gained a little weight, I said go ahead."

He took off in youth leagues and went on to star at Foley High, where he was rated the top receiver in the nation as a senior.

After a fierce recruiting battle, he picked Alabama. He had an immediate impact as a freshman. He helped the Crimson Tide roll to the BCS title as a sophomore. After a solid junior campaign, he was ready to leave for the NFL.

"I was physically and mentally prepared to come out," said Jones, who measures 6-2 3⁄4, 220 pounds.          

The Falcons, who wanted to spruce up their offensive attack, made a move they described as "bold and aggressive." They went up 21 spots to select Jones. They mortgaged part of the future in the process, but appear comfortable for now.

"I just know he's a good player and I hope he can do the same things he did for us at Alabama," Raiders MLB Rolando McClain said of Jones.

Jones, who was being projected to land in Cleveland or St. Louis, was taken aback by the move.

"I was very shocked, because I really didn't have that much contact with them," Jones said of the Falcons. "We just talked briefly. We weren't talking on the phone. I was very shocked and taken by surprise."

Jones will be expected to provide some pop to the Falcons' controlled passing game. Atlanta had only 32 receptions of 20 yards or more last season. The team's average of 6.46 yards per attempt ranked 25th in the league.

He will be expected to earn the starting spot opposite of Pro Bowler Roddy White.

If teams still elect to double-team White, then Jones' task will be simple: Use his 4.34 speed to beat one-on-one coverage.

"He's a true professional," said John Parker Wilson, the Falcons' backup QB who played a year with Jones at Alabama. "I think he's the real deal. I think he'll fit in really good with our team. He's a good, hard worker, a lot like the other personalities we have on our team. I think it's going to work well."

Even Michael Jenkins, who stands to lose his starting position, is impressed with the affable Jones.

"They obviously felt that he could come in and add to our offense," Jenkins said. "We are looking forward to seeing him out there making plays, the same way he did at Alabama."

Like with helping the tornado victims, Jones didn't waste any time trying to blend in with the locked-out Falcons.

He received a playbook from head coach Mike Smith when the lockout was lifted. When it was reinstated, he made his way to Atlanta to start getting tutored by Wilson and starting QB Matt Ryan.

A nagging foot injury that was diagnosed as a stress fracture in his left foot two days before the NFL Scouting Combine had required surgery in early March. A pin was inserted to help stabilize the foot and Jones is still recovering from the procedure.

Finally, in mid-May, he was cleared to run by orthopedist Robert Anderson of Charlotte. Jones was excited to join the rest of the veterans for their seven-on-seven practices.

"Matt Ryan and John Parker looked over the playbook with me and told me what I needed to study as far as formations and what we use a lot," Jones said. "That's what I've been doing. That's the stuff that I've been mainly focusing on."

Falcons offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey was Saban's offensive coordinator for the Miami Dolphins in 2006. Jones said some of the plays are similar.

"The schemes are the same," Jones said. "It's just that the terminology is different. I just have to catch on to the different terminology."

Wilson said Jones was a quick study as a freshman at Alabama. While the Falcons' playbook is much more voluminous, Wilson believes Jones is a solid learner and won't have any major issues.

Ryan, who started as a rookie, is a great teacher on the chalkboard. Ryan's patience will help Jones out, too.

"I've got a great crew to work with and I can learn," Jones said. "It's like being a freshman again and going to college. I'm willing to learn.

"These guys have made it a lot easier for me. … Everything is going smoothly."

Ryan has his visions, but because of the lockout he's not certain of any special nuances that Mularkey wants to add to the attack that might benefit Jones's integration into the unit.

"He's a big, physical guy," Ryan said. "I think he can do a lot of things for us. I think he'll play a big part."

The Falcons showed Jones how teams were attempting to defend White. How they were doubling him and rolling coverage to his side of the field.

He's looking forward to working with White.

"I can learn from him," Jones said. "I was used to double-teams in college and Roddy has been getting double-teamed, too. So we both can look forward to trying to get some one-on-one matchups."

Marvin, who will make the four-hour drive to Atlanta to see her son play, had a simple formula for his success.

"I said, 'you stay humble and you stay focused,' " said Marvin, who raised Jones in Foley's Southside Baptist church. "I said, 'you'll make it. You have to remember to keep God first and you'll go all the way.' "

D. Orlando Ledbetter covers the Falcons for the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

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