A recent discussion about people's reactions at the time of the Matt Ryan drafting prompted me to decide to take a look back on what people thought about the team's even more hotly contested recent top 10 selection. (Only because the Matt Ryan pick wasn't contested at all-everyone hated it). The reactions at the time can be seen here:
The debate was heated to say the least. I was personally a strong advocate of the trade at the time-mainly due to excitement over such a big move I think. I'm now going to examine whether the trade was a good idea given the 2 years worth of play we've seen from Jones, whilst trying to remain objective.
The Falcons gave up 3 picks in 2011 a first rounder (no.27), a 2nd rounder (no. 59) and a 4th rounder (no.124) and 2 picks in 2012-a 1st rounder (no.22) and 4th rounder (no.118) to trade up to No.6 to pick Julio Jones.
In 2011 the Browns traded up to get DT Phil Taylor, picked WR Greg Little in the 2nd round and FB Owen Marecic in the 4th round. In 2012 they took QB Brandon Weeden in the first and used the 4th rounder to trade up 1 spot to get RB Trent Richardson. Reports after the draft indicated that Minnesota duped them into this trade-the Vikings pretended there was another team trying to trade up for Richardson whom the Browns coveted when this was not the case.
So for Julio Jones the Browns got Phil Taylor, Greg Little, Owen Marecic and Brandon Weeden.
In 2 seasons (including playoffs) Julio Jones has appeared in 31 out of 35 games (missing large sections of 4 or 5 more of those) for the Falcons and amassed 157 receptions for 2452 yards and 20TDs. This works out at 15.6 YPC, with an average game constituting 79 yards and 5 receptions. He has put up some superb individual performances-none better than the NFC championship game against the 49ers when he contributed 182 yards and 2TDs against possibly the top defense in the league. However Jones has also struggled at times with injuries and drops in his NFL career. The struggle with injuries is a valid argument against the trade-1 player is more likely to get injured than 5 players are and when he has the Falcons offense has struggled to get moving. He made his first Pro Bowl in 2012 and garnered some All Pro attention, however he fell short of selection. He was PFFs 11th rated player on pure receiving grades in 2012.
Julio's struggles with drops and inconsistency pale in comparison to those of Browns receiver Greg Little. According to PFF, Little had a league leading drop rate of 19% in 2011 and was even worse at 23% in 2012. However given the Browns QB situation his 114 receptions for 1357 yards and 6TDs in 2 seasons are surprisingly solid.Nonetheless he trails Jones in several key categories-he hasn't proved to be a dominant player (only once exceeding 100 yards whilst never scoring 2TDs in a game) and his YPC is significantly lower at 11.9. Both players have struggled at times with the adjustment in the NFL, however understandbly given his pedigree Jones' learning curve has been much shallower. Little may turn out to be a similar calibre of player-but I doubt we would have reached the playoffs in both of these last 2 seasons while waiting for him to develop.
Talk of the Browns QB situation brings us to Brandon Weeden, who played poorly as an (old) rookie. I think it's unfair to evaluate him after just 1 season, but there are strong rumours that the new Browns regime is deciding to move on. Possibly they're concerned with the 72.6 rating for a player who turns 30 this season.
Owen Marecic has played in 24 games for the Browns, but was inactive for most of the 2nd half of this season. He hasn't logged any significant stats and dropped 4 passes without making a reception in 2012.
Phil Taylor is the pick of the bunch for the Browns. He has 5 sacks in 25 games and has played the run well according to PFF. However he missed the first half of 2012 through injury.
Without evaluating the Falcons side of the trade, I think it's safe to say the Browns have been quite wasteful with the significant haul they got from the Falcons. Which is why the regime that spent the picks is out. Taylor seems to be a good pick, and Little has been surprisingly productive and may still develop. But the team appears ready to move on from Marecic and Weeden, and unneccesarily gave up another pick to move up to move up for Richardson. Considering Julio's production so far I'd say the Falcons have the better side of the trade thus far.
But this isn't about whether the Falcons have done better than the Browns out of this trade. I don't think it's unreasonable to say that their front office is better than the recently departed Holmgren regime and they have different needs-so they would have spent those picks differently. This post is about whether this trade was a prudent move for the Falcons-so let's take a look at who was available that they may have drafted. This is informed conjecture based on team needs and interests, but I will also try and be realistic. The Falcons should have drafted Richard Sherman with hindsight, but I think it's unlikely that they would have.
27-2011. Defensive End Jabaal Sheard was apparently attracting interest from Atlanta pre draft. He has 15.5 sacks in 2 seasons and comes with the added bonus that he would have likely prevented the Ray Edwards signing. LB Bruce Carter was another option who has played well for the Cowboys and is athletic enough to cover Tight Ends. If the team had insisted on going offense they could have picked TE Kyle Rudolph who has 742 yards, 12 TDs and 1 Pro Bowl berth thus far.
59-2011. Sheard was the best option in the first round, and given the Falcons pre draft interest in him it's likely they would have picked him. The Falcons had an obvious need at WR at this time- and notable options available here are the aforementioned Greg Little and Randall Cobb. I hope the Falcons would have taken Cobb. Although the two players receiving statistics are similar through 2 years, Cobb has been a considerable asset on special teams. He has also been much lower in the pecking order in GB than Little has in Cleveland, although the QB play has been as good as Cleveland's has been bad. Justin Houston (another player who the Falcons were said to have interest in pre draft) was also available at this spot, he has 15.5 sacks and has been to 1 Pro Bowl. RB Demarco Murray was available too-although the Falcons still seemingly had a lot of faith in Turner at this point and were about to draft Rodgers later anyway so it's unlikely he would have been the pick
124-2011. The most notable player available here is Richard Sherman-but given that the Falcons passed on him 20 picks later for Jacquizz Rodgers I doubt they would have taken him. In hindsight they should have taken him over Rodgers, but he probably wasn't high on their board for some reason (either due to lack of speed or being thoroughly unpleasant). I think the Falcons would have picked a classic unheard of Dimitroff-esque depth player at a position of need here, it's difficult to say who but the player would likely be playing at OL, WR, TE, LB, DT or CB and would be in with a chance to fight for a rotation or starting spot this season.
22-2012-Obviously the Falcons wouldn't have taken Weeden here. I think it's likely they would (and should) have gone Sheard, Cobb/Little and then an unnamed player who would have been unlikely to contribute much as a rookie (given that it was a 4th round pick) in 2011. The best player available here is Doug Martin-who we know plenty about. LB Bobby Wagner was also available at this spot.
118-2012-Again I'm going to try and be realistic-the players in the high rounds are ones the team would definitely have known about, but it's more of a crapshoot later on. The team would have selected another player at one of the above listed spots who'd be fighting for playing time coming into this year
So there you have it-would you rather have Doug Martin, Randall Cobb, Jabaal Sheard and young depth at 2 more positions of need or Julio Jones. The roster composition would be very different (and much younger) in the former situation. We wouldn't have Steven Jackson now for example. Michael Jenkins might even still be on the roster. In this hypothetical scenario our team needs would be very similar to what they are now (although we maybe wouldn't be crying out for depth as badly at key positions like LB and CB) and we would have probably avoided Ray Edwards-because with Sheard on board and more depth because of more picks we wouldn't have to panic buy at defensive end. The return position would also be sorted So we'd have more cap room this year because we wouldn't have signed Jackson and Edwards. Meaning we could have potentially kept or added Falcoholic favourites like Grimes, Abraham, Dansby or just carried more space into 2014. We would be a younger and deeper team. We would be a very solid team, but we'd lack the superstar power and explosion we currently have. We might be looking to spend big in free agency (maybe someone like Mike Wallace or Percy Harvin) or make a big trade up in the draft this offseason to acquire a potentially dominant and game changing player like Julio Jones this offseason. It's eminently possible that the team could have picked busts like John Baldwin if they'd stayed but-although I don't think it's likely because TD is very solid in the early rounds (Yes I remember Peria Jerry, now is not the time...)
The team knew that they were giving up youth and depth when they made the trade-and they did this because they believed that Julio Jones would provide them with the previously lacking ability to dominate games and turn them on their heads in an instant. They didn't believe they could get this with their later picks-although both Randall Cobb and Doug Martin have been able to do this (albeit not as frequently as Jones). When you evaluate this trade in light of what the Falcons could have had I don't think it's a slamdunk that they definitely should have made it. It was made because the Falcons lack truly dominant players-by this I mean players who are amongst the best in the NFL regardless of position. White is a great player, one of the best WRs in the game. But I don't think you can argue he's one of the best in the NFL regardless of position-he is a level below Calvin Johnson or Larry Fitzgerald because he is not as physically dominant. Gonzalez was once at this level, and he is still amongst the best TEs but he's not at the level of Gronkowski in transcending the TE position. Spoon and Moore are good players, but no where near the level of best in the NFL regardless of position. Matt Ryan has the potential to get there-and his play is at times at the level. I believe he will get there, but so far he's not at that level.
Whilst I think Randall Cobb, Doug Martin and Jabaal Sheard will all end up being Pro Bowlers, I don't believe any of them will get to the above stated. I think the Falcons believe that Julio Jones will reach this level-they must have done to make this trade. For this trade to be worth it, I believe he has to. To be worth 3 Pro Bowl calibre (or thereabouts) players at positions of need and 2 solid depth players (who could have been more, you never know) I think Jones has to take the step to All-Pro. He was to become a player on the level of Adrian Peterson or Calvin Johnson who is absolutely dominant. His performance against SF in our most recent game was very promising and his career thus far has been too-he has 300 more yards and 2 more TDs in the regular season than Johnson had at this stage of his career. The usual caveats about quality of QB play and other players taking targets away apply of course. I think Julio Jones will improve to that level-and I think he has to for this trade to be deemed worth it. 11th best in the receiver rankings and dropping deep touchdowns isn't what we gave up all those picks up for. Because there was another option that staying put and picking up depth and youth at those positions. We passed on a player who has already reached that level in 2 NFL seasons.
JJ Watt was drafted 11th overall. He had one of the greatest defensive seasons of all time last year-with 20.5 sacks as a 3-4 defensive end. He was the defensive player of the year and set an NFL record for batted passes. I understand that we do not currently play the 3-4, but I think he is a player so talented that he could excel in any scheme. Nolan certainly would love to have a player like that, although I doubt BVG would have used him to his full potential.
So there you have it-which would you rather have the plethora of players listed above (or some other combination), Julio Jones or JJ Watt? Do you think the trade was worth it? Am I setting the bar too high for Jones? Will Julio Jones (or indeed Matt Ryan) reach the esoteric level I'm describing? Is my opinion worth anything considering that I compared Von Miller to Aaron Curry in 2011?