A regular sight during the first two days of Falcons training camp was Julio Jones gliding up and down the field making difficult plays look effortless and defenders look silly.
In other words, Jones has started camp doing many of the same things he did while earning his first Pro Bowl selection in 2012, his second NFL season. Already a rare combination of size and speed, Jones spent the offseason slimming down with a diet heavy on chicken, turkey and vegetables and appears even quicker.
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said Jones is ready to take another step.
“Man, he just continues to get better,” Ryan said. “He’s coming into his third year. I think he’s really starting to come into his own in terms of his confidence and understanding what we are doing offensively.”
Jones had 79 receptions for 1,198 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. His threat to go deep for passes affected the way opponents defended the Falcons and allowed him to be effective on screen passes because defenders had to give him a cushion.
Any increase in speed for Jones will make him even more difficult to defend. Ryan said there’s been a mental change with Jones, too.
“When guys stop thinking out there and they just play, they change,” Ryan said. “He’s not thinking out there very much right now. He knows what he’s doing, and he’s going out there and he’s making plays. I think he is in a good spot.”
No problem: Soon Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez will leave training camp and return home to California to be with his son for his first year playing youth football. Gonzalez and coach Mike Smith made the arrangement before Gonzalez decided to put off retirement and return for a 17th season.
Ryan said he doesn’t think Gonzalez’s time away will affect his preparation or the team’s chemistry in the passing game.
“He always maintains his shape really, really well,” Ryan said. “He and I have a great rapport. We’ve worked together a lot. I was out in California prior to training camp to get some work in (for) a couple days. That timing and the last couple of days and then when he gets back will be plenty of time. It’s not an issue at all.”
When Gonzalez leaves camp, three other tight ends on the roster likely will vie for time with the starting group: Chase Coffman, Tommy Gallarda and rookie Levine Toilolo. Coffman and Gallarda have served as Falcons backups, and the team selected Toilolo in the fourth round of the draft.
Those three players have a combined four years of NFL experience, compared with Gonzalez’s 16.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for those guys,” Ryan said. “And they are all hard workers, and they all do a good job. It will be interesting to see how things shake out the next couple of weeks.”
Good start: Smith said he’s pleased with the team’s preparation for camp.
“One of things I was most impressed with today was the mental part of it,” he said. “They have done a great job, especially the young guys, retaining what they learned in OTAs and minicamp. I’m pleasantly surprised with the lack of mental errors that we’ve had in the first two practices.”
Super team? Former Falcons star Deion Sanders was at practice Friday along with youth football teams that he sponsors in metro Atlanta and Texas. He praised the Falcons’ organization and said the team should have only one goal.
“These guys are pretty much in a situation where it’s Super Bowl or not,” Sanders said. “That’s where they are. They have a quarterback that is stable, that’s poised. He’s a veteran. He received what he earned (in a new contract), and I’m happy for him. I think for this team, it’s Super Bowl or bust, and I think they can get there.”
Etc.: The Falcons signed wide receiver Marcus Sales, a rookie free agent out of Syracuse. Sales tried out during the Falcons’ rookie minicamp. … Smith said the Falcons will have their first practice in pads Sunday. They won’t have their usual morning walk-through before the 3:30 session. … The Falcons were able to get in the entire practice session Friday in spite of threatening weather. “I did hear thunder,” Smith said. “When I checked it was more than 11 miles away, so we were in good shape. I was a little concerned about it happening, but we got it done.”
Staff writer D. Orlando Ledbetter contributed to this article.