FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- There was Pro Bowl recognition last season, another national commercial and a TV appearance since then and the anticipation that he will be even better for the Atlanta Falcons in 2013.
There's a lot expected from wide receiver Julio Jones, perhaps more than from any Falcons player aside from quarterback Matt Ryan. He's just 24 years old and is expected to be a star for an offense trying to power the Falcons to a Super Bowl for the second time.
Surely, Jones feels more pressure than ever to perform.
"No pressure at all," Jones said at training camp this week after reporters peppered him with several questions on the topic. "Why would I feel pressure?"
Jones said the goal is the Super Bowl, but he feels no burden because he trusts his process. Put in the work in the meeting room and on the practice field and "everything else comes easy for me."
As far as external expectations, Jones said he learned to manage them from his coach at Alabama, Nick Saban, and it's been reinforced by the organizational culture under Falcons coach Mike Smith.
"We've got to come out here and put the work in and the effort in every day to get where we want to," Jones said. "It's like, once you are successful, people are going to tell you this and tell you that. But (Saban) makes sure you are going to go out there and work. Coach Smith, as well, he makes us work every day, and we know what it takes to get there."
It's going to take another fine season from Jones for the Falcons to get to the Super Bowl. There's no reason to think he won't continue his ascension.
Jones is the big-play threat for the Falcons' high-powered passing game. In two seasons Jones has 16 receptions of 25 yards or more, tied for third-most in the NFL over that span.
Jones has elite physical talent with a rare combination of size and speed. He said he's added about 10 pounds of muscle from last season and is up to about 230 with no loss of quickness or stamina.
That raises the possibility that one of the league's most physically gifted wide receivers is even more imposing.
"He has all the attributes to be one of the best receivers in the league," Falcons cornerback Robert McClain said. "Strength, speed, he runs good routes, can break on a dime."
Jones said he still can improve on the nuances of playing his position -- such as route running, gaining separation from defenders and the intricacies of the playbook. Dropped passes were a problem for Jones in his rookie season, but he improved in 2012: just eight in 150 "catchable" passes, according to Pro Football Focus.
Ryan said during camp he has noticed that Jones is thinking less and reacting more.
"No question," Jones said. "As soon as he says (the play), I know what I've got to do. I can read the defense a little better now. And everything is coming to me so much faster."
Success has come fast for Jones. He had a big rookie season and then topped it in 2012. Is there any chance Jones will become complacent?
Smith says the answer to the question is self-evident from what happened in the 2011 draft, when the Falcons traded five draft picks to the Browns for the right to select Jones with the No. 6 overall pick.
"He's one of the hardest working guys on our football team," Smith said. "When we were doing our due diligence in evaluating him in the draft process, we heard nothing but great things. Obviously the move that we made to acquire Julio tells us what we think about him on all levels."
In other words, the Falcons wouldn't have invested so much in Jones if they thought there was a chance he would become a star and then relax.
Jones said, "You can be as talented as you want to be, but you've got to have that work ethic." He said he's known it since his days playing youth football.
"I go out here and I put the helmet on, it's time to go to work," Jones said.
"I really don't care who is in front of me. I think that helps the young guys out, as well, me going out there and just playing Julio and being me and not bringing it down a level. I'm raising the bar for them and make them bring (their) play up to my level."
Michael Cunningham writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Email: mcunningham(at)ajc.com.
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