By Ross Jones, FOXSports.com
MALIBU, Calif. — The Falcons might not have a ton of collective playoff experience, but they make up for that with veteran leadership.
During the same time Tony Gonzalez announced he would return for another season of Falcons football in March, the franchise went out and nabbed two other veterans in free agency.
Defensive end Osi Umenyiora and running back Steven Jackson have made their presence felt at Flowery Branch and the younger players have already taken notice.
“Every morning Osi is working out in the facility before anyone even gets there,” Falcons receiver Julio Jones told FOXSports.com in an exclusive interview on set of a Foot Locker Under Armour commercial. “I noticed that, so I started doing that. Little things like that will make this team great.”
It’s not just Umenyiora who has been training at a high level, either. Jackson, who turns 30 next month, caught praise from head coach Mike Smith last week, saying that he has the body of a 22-year-old. It’s fair to say that Jones and Smith share similar viewpoints.
“No question,” said Jones, who is promoting the new Under Armour Gridiron Trainers, which will only be available at Foot Locker this fall. “Steven comes out there and he works. I don’t know how old he is. I know he’s a veteran, but he gets out there and works every play. He’s taking every rep whenever coach wants him in there.”
“That stuff is not mandatory, man, it’s voluntary. You can come if you want to, but Steven is there working. I really believe he is going to make the Atlanta Falcons better.”
So, how has Jones been working to better himself this offseason? He credits vacationing in the Bahamas and Dominican Republic and focusing on his diet. Jones said he has cut out beef and pork over the last year and has enjoyed the benefits since then.
“I feel l much better,” Jones said. “Especially playing football, I feel that stuff sits on you.”
Jones has taken the proper advice of his team nutritionist and when he has the choice, he prefers organic food over regular. It’s much more than what he consumes, too. Jones has been spending a lot of time around the team facility and has been working on building camaraderie with all of the players. Even the rookies.
Desmond Trufant, who the Falcons selected in the first round of April’s NFL Draft, has some big shoes to fill as veteran cornerback Dunta Robinson left for Kansas City. Although Trufant won’t be thrown into the fire immediately, from what Jones has seen, he has all of the on-field intangibles to make him a shutdown corner.
“I worked with him the other day. He’s a real good talent. He gets out of his breaks and he can get on top of you. He has sound technique and comes at your routes and everything. He’ll pick the ball off. That’s for sure.”
Building chemistry with the veterans is important, too. Especially if you’re a wide receiver, a healthy relationship with your quarterback is beneficial to the team. Jones believes he and Matt Ryan have a very strong connection both on and off the field.
“I’m definitely on the same page as my quarterback. You have to be able to talk to your quarterback. One person can’t be bigger than the other. You gotta be on the same page and have the same goals. Me and Matt have the same goals. We work. I’ll tell him, ‘Matt, I see this and that’ and he’ll say, ‘OK, I’m going to put the ball here, can you adjust to it?’ He has confidence that he can throw the ball to me.”
Ryan has so much of an appreciation that Jones said the quarterback invited his receiving corps to Monday night’s captain’s dinner. Things like that will go a long way, especially in a 17-week regular season.
There is something special going on in Atlanta. Surely, the postseason success will come. The work in the offseason is what prepares teams for a playoff-bound journey.