FLOWERY BRANCH — Julio Jones describes his second return from right foot surgery as “a work in progress.”
Regardless how many routes he runs in training camp or how many snaps he takes in preseason games, Jones has one primary goal — to be healthy when the Atlanta Falcons host New Orleans in the season opener Sept. 7.
The Falcons are holding the 25-year-old Jones out of practice every other day to ensure a reasonable workload, and that’s fine with him.
“It doesn’t prove anything if I go out here and run 40 or 50 routes in practice and something happens,” Jones said Thursday evening. “What we’re doing now is taking every step, every little procedure to get there so that I’m healthy and don’t have any doubts about my ability to go out there and make plays.”
Jones’ 2013 season ended after a Week 5 home loss to the New York Jets when an MRI showed that he had broken his right foot for a second time.
He led the NFL in catches and ranked second in yards receiving at the time of his injury, but Jones couldn’t believe the diagnosis because he didn’t feel excruciating pain.
But the news was crushing, and watching his teammates finish the season 4-12 hurt even worse.
At this point in camp last year, Atlanta seemed to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender, but the offense fell apart without Jones. Serious injuries to receiver Roddy White and running back Steven Jackson also hurt production as tight end Tony Gonzalez was double- and triple-teamed. And the offensive line fell apart, too.
The Falcons hit bottom, ranking last in rushing and getting quarterback Matt Ryan sacked a career-high 44 times. Ryan also was pressured 203 times, most in the NFL.
Though Jackson has been sidelined the last couple of days with a hamstring injury, Jones sees no reason why the Falcons, with a retooled offensive line, can’t return to the playoffs this season.
A Pro Bowl selection in 2012, Jones plans to regain the form that helped become an elite receiver.
“I’ve just got to do better than what I started last year and now I’ve got to finish,” Jones told the Associated Press. “I got off to a great start last, but now I just have to focus on this year and stay healthy.”
Jones’ injury was similar to the one he suffered at the NFL combine in 2011 a couple of months before the Falcons made a blockbuster trade with Cleveland to move up in the draft and take him No. 6 overall.
This time, an orthopedist removed the first screw that had been inserted but had been bent. A larger screw was used instead. Bone marrow was removed from his hip and injected into his foot to aid cell recovery.
Jones showed off his athleticism toward the end of practice Thursday, lining up on the far left side opposite Desmond Trufant and running quickly past the cornerback to catch a 40-yard pass from Ryan.
It was vintage Jones.
“No moves or anything,” Jones said. “I just wanted to open up and see what I had, but I felt great. No tightness or anything. I could’ve run faster, but I did what I needed to do and made a play.”
Notes: Coach Mike Smith had no update on Jackson, who missed his second straight practice and has no immediate timetable to return. ... Smith added that LB Pat Angerer has entered the NFL’s concussion protocol and will be held out the next few days. ... Rookie FS Dez Southward is probably going to miss about a week of practice with a knee injury. Smith said “it’s nothing serious” and that “we anticipate he’ll be ready to go” for preseason games.