Flowery Branch: Julio Jones’ deal, Vic Beasley’s last chance among storylines

Atlanta Falcons center Alex Mack (51), second from left, prepares to run a play during their NFL training camp football practice Monday, July 22, 2019, in Flowery Branch, Ga.(AP Photo/John Bazemore)

The Atlanta Falcons opened training camp on July 21 in Flowery Branch, Georgia. Here’s a closer look at a few developing stories:

Vaughn McClure
ESPN Staff Writer

Will Julio Jones become the league’s highest-paid receiver and the first receiver to average $20 million per year?

Jones probably deserves to be the first receiver to average $25 million per year. There has been talk about other receivers — namely Michael Thomas of the rival Saints — perhaps hitting the $20 million mark. If that’s the case, the six-time Pro Bowler Jones definitely deserves more just based on his consistent production and the fear he puts in opposing defenses. But Jones told ESPN he’s not concerned with being the highest paid. He’s more concerned with making sure there’s enough money to spread around to keep the team intact.

Whatever happens, Jones is sure to be paid handsomely, as team owner Arthur Blank promised. Matt Ryan became the highest-paid quarterback with he got $30 million per year and $100 million guaranteed, but he then was surpassed by Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, and Russell Wilson. If Jones gets a lucrative deal that pays him his worth, he should take it even if someone else surpasses him immediately.

Jones is 30 now and entering his ninth season. He’s dealt with nagging injuries, so who knows how many more years he even intends to play. There’s no denying how productive Jones is as Ryan’s top target. He’s put up at least 1,400 receiving yards and 80 catches in each of the last five seasons. And for all those complaining about Jones’ three touchdowns in 2017, he came back with eight scores last season. Jones also is an unselfish superstar and the ideal mentor for a young receiver such as Calvin Ridley.

Will rookie first-round pick Kaleb McGary secure the starting right tackle spot next to fellow rookie first-round right guard Chris Lindstrom?

That could be up for much debate. McGary has a nastiness to him and obviously moves well for his size. But there were doubts about him coming out of Washington. One NFC scout called him “talented by raw” and expressed surprise that the Falcons traded up to get him late in the first round. That same scout referred to McGary as a “meathead type.” On the other hand, an AFC executive said McGary might have been the best lineman in the draft. If the Falcons get the latter, then there’s no reason why McGary shouldn’t surpass shaky veteran Ty Sambrailo as the starting right tackle. The Falcons need McGary and Lindstrom to grow in unison for years to come.

Are starting safeties Keanu Neal (ACL) and Ricardo Allen (Achilles) back to full form and ready to go off season-ending injuries?

They’re getting there. Neal showed the most progress of the two during the offseason when he participated in some walk-throughs. Neal’s social media posts showed his step-by-step rehab, and he expressed confidence about making a full recovery.

Although the Falcons sorely need Neal’s hard-hitting, enforcing style back in the lineup, they might need Allen’s presence even more. He is like a quarterback on defense with his ability to analyze offenses and get his teammates lined up correctly. Allen is a true leader. But the last thing the Falcons want to do is rush him back if he’s not ready. Safety depth took a little hit after newcomer J.J. Wilcox suffered an ACL injury, but the Falcons hope guys like Chris Cooper and Sharrod Neasman can provide depth at the position.

Can former first-round pick Vic Beasley Jr. show he still has enough in him to be an impact pass-rusher, as he was when he led the league in sacks in 2016?

Beasley teased everyone by leading the league with 15.5 sacks in 2016. It raised his bar maybe higher than expected, so anything less than double-digit sacks looks like a disappointment. Beasley has the athleticism and speed to dominate off the edge, and the Falcons need him to close the deal with defensive tackle Grady Jarrett creating havoc on the interior. Problem is, Beasley doesn’t have much of a mean streak and lacks countermoves. You can’t beat talented offensive tackles with just one move. Falcons coach Dan Quinn, who has taken over as defensive coordinator, believes he can get the best out of Beasley with some hands-on attention. We’ll see if Quinn lights a fire or if Beasley simply flames out in the final year of his deal.

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