By PAUL NEWBERRY, AP Sports Writer
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) — Matt Ryan barked out a play, took the snap and zipped a pass to the receiver who played his college ball at Alabama.
Nope, it wasn’t Julio Jones.
He’s sitting out the team’s voluntary offseason program. So it was Calvin Ridley — a first-round draft pick from the Crimson Tide — who got a chance to shine during a 90-minute practice Wednesday.
But, for a team with Super Bowl aspirations, it was impossible to ignore the absence of No. 11.
So, where’s Julio?
The Falcons say it’s no big deal, even as they talk constantly about the importance building camaraderie and trust in each other during the voluntary offseason workouts, a big part of coach Dan Quinn’s much-ballyhooed “Brotherhood .”
Jones said his absence has nothing to do with any hard feelings toward the only team he’s played with in the NFL, but he’s vague about his reasons for staying away and it seems fairly obvious that he’s trying to send a message about his desire for a new contract.
While Jones still has three seasons remaining on the last deal he signed — a five-year, $71.3 million extension with $47 million in guaranteed money — his average salary is now less than at least a half-dozen receivers around the league. Most tellingly, recent deals with Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans and Cleveland’s Jarvis Landry seemed to set a whole new financial bar for the NFL’s top pass catchers, a list that certainly includes Jones.
In addition, he surely took note when the Falcons made quarterback Matt Ryan the league’s NFL’s first $100 million man , agreeing to a new deal that assures the quarterback of at least that much in guaranteed money and could average out to as much as $30 million annually over five seasons.
Rarely flustered, Ryan got a bit testy when asked about missing out on a chance to work with his favorite receiver during OTAs.
“We’ll have our chances to work together,” the QB said. “I’m not going to go into it more than that. It’s not really anybody else’s business.”
Jones has gone silent on social media and hasn’t spoken in months to the Atlanta media, but he did provide some reassuring words to Falcons fans when the gossip site TMZ caught up with him last weekend as he was leaving a swanky restaurant in West Hollywood .
“Everyone wants a story right now. There’s no story to be told,” Jones insisted. “I’m just working on getting myself better. I’m just working on myself right now. That’s all that is. There’s no bad blood between me and the team or anything like that.”
Jones insisted that he plans to remain with the Falcons for the rest of his career, echoing a sentiment expressed by owner Arthur Blank.
“Everybody on the outside (is) trying to look in and trying to destroy what we built there,” Jones said. “I’m not going nowhere. I’ll be there. I love the team. I love the organization. I love everybody there. I’m good.”
Still, Jones’ decision to skip OTAs has been a major topic of conversation around Atlanta, with fans and sports talk radio weighing in almost daily on his future with a team that reached the Super Bowl during the 2016 season and the second round of the playoffs last season.
Everyone can rest easy, Quinn insisted.
Jones has assured his coach that he’ll be at the team’s mandatory minicamp, which is scheduled for June 12-14.
“The guys who are really close to him, obviously they keep up,” Quinn said outside the locker room after practice. “It’s not like they don’t hang out and talk on the phone and do stuff together. They may not be spending the amount of time here, in the building, that they normally do. But that doesn’t mean they don’t spend time away from here. So, no issues on our end.
“I know he’s working really hard. I’ve had contact with him, obviously. We can’t wait to get him back, here, with the guys. But he’s really putting good work in. I think we’ll see the results of that work, hopefully soon.”
The 29-year-old Jones is a huge weapon in the Falcons’ offense , using his rare combination of speed, size and power to shake off constant double-teams. Last season, he had 88 catches for 1,444 yards — his fourth straight season with at least 80 receptions and 1,400 receiving yards. In 2015, he had one of the greatest seasons ever by an NFL receiver — 136 catches (tied for the second most in league history behind Marvin Harrison’s 143) and 1,871 yards (surpassed only by Calvin Johnson’s record of 1,954) .
Ryan certainly recognizes the bond he has with his favorite receiver.
They’ve been together since 2011. They won’t be any trouble getting back in sync, Ryan said confidently.
As soon as Jones shows up, that is.
“No concern,” Ryan said. “He’s always been extremely well prepared coming into seasons, going into games. Talk about being on the same page: we’ve played together for a long time. When he’s healthy and he feels good , like he does right now … it’s very easy to get on the same page. He’s so talented. So, we’re fine.”
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