Falcons begin post-Julio Jones era in Smith’s first minicamp

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Matt Ryan, Arthur Smith

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan throws a baseball into a net as head coach Arthur Smith looks on during the team’s mini camp football practice Tuesday, June 8, 2021, in Flowery Branch, Ga. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

ATLANTA (AP) — Arthur Smith delivered a frank answer when asked about entering his first season as the Atlanta Falcons’ coach without Julio Jones.

“I don’t worry about players I never coached,” Smith said following Tuesday’s opening day of mandatory minicamp.

Jones was traded to Tennessee on Sunday in a move that allowed the financially strapped Falcons to clear the salary cap space needed to sign this year’s draft picks.

Jones, 32, left as the Falcons’ all-time leader in catches and receiving yards. He stood with quarterback Matt Ryan as the faces of the franchise for a decade. Like Ryan, he was a popular leader both on and off the field.

Smith, the former Titans offensive coordinator, recognized that a player with Jones’ Hall of Fame credentials merits a sendoff with compliments.

Smith said he has “a lot of respect and appreciation for what he did here. I wish him well at Tennessee. My main concern is our roster and getting us ready to go for this fall.”

Jones’ trade to the Titans was not a surprise. Even so, the first practice without the seven-time Pro Bowl receiver felt different to his former teammates.

“I just have a ton of respect for Julio and all the amazing things he’s accomplished in his career and for the team,” right guard Chris Lindstrom said. “I’m just thankful for the interactions I had with Julio. He was a great teammate and a great role model in the locker room.”

Defensive end Steven Means said the trade wouldn’t be a distraction.

“We’ve got a great group of guys, so we all wish him the best,” Means said. “We know now we’ve got to ramp it up, but it’s not going to be a distraction. It’s not going to be nothing that is going to hold us back in the sense of us dwelling on it. We’re just going to push forward and wish him well and go out there and continue to play ball.”

Speculation about a trade grew after first-year general manager Terry Fontenot said the team would entertain offers for Jones. Last week, Jones told former NFL star Shannon Sharpe “I’m outta there” in an interview on FS1.

Atlanta received the Titans’ second-round pick in 2022 and their fourth-rounder in 2023. The Falcons included a sixth-round pick in 2023 in the deal.

Jones’ production had been impressive and consistent, with six straight seasons with more than 1,300 yards receiving, before last season. A nagging hamstring injury limited him to nine games in 2020, when Calvin Ridley emerged as the team’s top receiver.

Jones holds Atlanta records with 848 catches for 12,896 yards. His 60 touchdowns rank second, behind Roddy White (63).

Ridley, Russell Gage and newly acquired Tajae Sharpe, who previously played for Smith at Tennessee, now lead Atlanta’s receiving corps.

Tight end Kyle Pitts, the No. 4 overall selection in this year’s NFL draft, could line up like a wide receiver in two-tight end sets with Hayden Hurst. Running back Cordarrelle Patterson, who began his career as a wide receiver, also could be used in different roles.

“We’ll use any of these guys that are versatile out there,” Smith said. “We feel like we’ve got a lot of versatile pieces, whether that’s Hayden, whether that’s Kyle, Cordarrelle. We have a lot of different guys and there will be great competition in every room.”

NOTES: LB Deion Jones reported on Monday for his physical but was excused for Tuesday’s first day of minicamp. Smith said the approved absence was for a family matter. … Smith said Atlanta will have joint training camp practices with the Miami Dolphins before the teams’ preseason game in Miami on Aug. 21. The Falcons’ first preseason game is against Jones and the Titans on Aug. 12 in Atlanta.

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