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The Falcons are playing a dangerous game with Julio Jones

The Falcons have made it clear that a deal for Julio is not happening in 2018, but that could end up being both a PR and financial mistake in the long run.

Carolina Panthers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images

Just when we thought that the Julio Jones contract saga would finally be winding down to a close, fresh fuel has been thrown on the fire.

The spirits of Falcons fans across the world were lifted when photos surfaced showing Julio in attendance at Matt Ryan’s completely voluntary passing camp in California. This seemed to be an “olive branch” of sorts, proving that Julio was still committed to his fellow players despite the difficulties with his contract. News out of Flowery Branch also seemed to be positive, as the last thing we had heard was that the two sides were negotiating to reach some sort of arrangement.

All of those warm fuzzy feelings were quickly replaced with doubt and uncertainty, as the team announced earlier this week that there would be no new contract for Julio in 2018. Instead, the Falcons offered assurances that Julio would receive a raise after the conclusion of the 2019 season. Those promises from the team were apparently not enough, as reports have now surfaced that claim Julio will not show up to training camp.

This news is obviously quite distressing for Falcons fans. However, Jones missing training camp isn’t a big deal in the long run. It would be nice for him to be there for a lot of reasons, including mentoring rookie Calvin Ridley, but it wouldn’t be catastrophic to the Falcons’ on-field aspirations in 2018. The big question, though, is whether or not Julio is willing to sit out regular season games.

Ignoring the potential public relations and on-field disaster that would accompany one of the faces of the franchise sitting out meaningful football games, the Falcons could be playing a very dangerous game financially. Let’s take a closer look at some of the potential positives and negatives of re-doing Julio’s deal this offseason versus next offseason.

Scenario 1: Julio gets a new deal in 2018

The Falcons have publicly foreclosed on the possibility of this happening, but it’s still very much in the cards if Julio Jones is willing to extend his holdout into the regular season. That would be a very unusual course of action in terms of the NFL as a whole, but it isn’t entirely out of the question. After all, Julio would be giving up approximately $656K per game, notwithstanding any potential fines from the league or team for missing training camp.

For a player of Julio’s caliber, with numerous endorsement deals and other sources of income, it’s entirely possible that he may not need those game checks every week. If Julio decides that he is financially capable of handling that lost income, the team really has no leverage to force him into playing. In that case, this holdout has the potential of turning quite ugly.

The reality is, if Julio sits out preseason games and makes it clear that he’s willing to do the same in the regular season, the Falcons will be forced into giving him a new deal before the season. It simply isn’t worth the on-field and off-field losses the team would suffer in order to preserve the contract precedents that Jones is bucking. So, let’s just say that, for whatever reason, the team elects to give Julio a new contract prior to the 2018 season.

What would a new deal for Julio look like at this point? Well, to start, he’ll obviously want to be the highest paid WR in the NFL. Right now, that title belongs to Tampa Bay WR Mike Evans on a deal that includes an average salary of $16.5M and approximately $55M in guarantees (per Spotrac). Therefore, Julio would probably be looking for something in the neighborhood of $18M per year, and at least $60M in guarantees.

A new 5-year contract for Julio that began with the 2018 season, using the above guidelines, would look something like this.

What a new deal for Julio Jones in 2018 might look like: 5 years, $90M, $66.5M guaranteed, $20M signing bonus.

Example Contract

Year Age Base Salary Signing Bonus Cap Hit Guaranteed Dead Cap
Year Age Base Salary Signing Bonus Cap Hit Guaranteed Dead Cap
2018 29 $13M $4M $17M $17M (full) $66.5M
2019 30 $14.25M $4M $18.25M $18.25M (full) $49.5M
2020 31 $14.25M $4M $18.25M $18.25M (full) $31.25M
2021 32 $14.25M $4M $18.25M $9M $13M
2022 33 $14.25M $4M $18.25M $4M $4M

In order for the Falcons to make this work, they’d have to shell out an additional $4M in 2018. That is easily do-able for the team, as Atlanta is currently sitting at nearly $7.3M in cap space. The team could get Julio’s 2018 number even lower by incorporating a bigger signing bonus or other cap wizardry, but it would further inflate future cap numbers.

This contract would undoubtedly make Julio and his agent happy, as the team addresses the biggest issue with Julio’s previous contract: lack of guaranteed money in the later seasons of the deal. By fully guaranteeing the first three years, and adding in a decent guarantee in year 4, the team makes Julio essentially unable to be cut until the final year of the deal—when the Falcons traditionally like to re-do contracts anyway.

It’s a very player-friendly contract, but it has the added benefit of keeping Julio’s cap number acceptably low and consistent. For a pillar of the franchise that has shown absolutely no signs of slowing down, it’s a deal that the Falcons should be willing to make. Julio’s contract would probably be re-evaluated after his age 32 season—right when Calvin Ridley’s fifth-year option would be kicking in (and where the team generally offers an extension).

It gives the team flexibility with their WR corps right when they’ll need it most—and it’ll defuse any tension between Julio and the team for quite some time.

However, it will severely limit the Falcons’ options for extending players until the 2019 season. The team has made it clear that they’re working on deals for players like Grady Jarrett and Jake Matthews, and getting those deals done before they hit the open market would go a long way in keeping their cap numbers down. It’s possible that the team could still work in an extension for Matthews, who already has a pretty substantial cap hit ($12.5M). Depending on the structure of the contract, that could wipe out a significant amount of the Falcons’ remaining cap room. Under Dimitroff, the team generally takes at least a couple million into the year for emergency signings—so that would be bucking a trend.

One way or another, the Falcons will be paying for these players. Waiting until 2019 could be risky, but it also could pay off. For instance, if Matthews has a sub-par season, his price may drop somewhat. Someone like Grady Jarrett, however, is pretty unlikely to experience a significant drop in play, and his price could instead increase—particularly with Aaron Donald likely to completely reset the DT market in 2019.

However, waiting to sign Julio could have the exact same repercussions, as we’ll see in 2019 when Odell Beckham Jr. gets his mammoth extension.

Scenario 2: Julio Jones gets a new contract in 2019

In this scenario, Julio and the Falcons manage to make it through the 2018 season without touching his existing contract. Julio might simply trust the word of the organization that he’ll be taken care of in 2019, or he might just grudgingly accept that he’s out of options at this point. Either way, it’s unlikely to sit well with him—and the possibility of the relationship between Julio and the team souring is not one that I take lightly.

With Julio claiming that he’s willing to sit out the entirety of training camp, this is also an anxiety-provoking situation for fans. We simply won’t know if Julio will continue his holdout until the start of the regular season—and if we reach that point, it probably means that the team and Julio are in a bad place. But, for the purposes of this article, let’s say that the Falcons’ hardball strategy pays off, and Julio plays through the season on his current deal.

In 2019, Julio’s contract adjustment comes due. Let’s say Odell Beckham Jr.’s contract comes in right where he wants it: $20M per year. With that as a starting point, let’s take a look at an example contract for Julio.

What a new deal for Julio Jones in 2019 might look like: 5 years, $100M, $25M signing bonus, $72.3M guaranteed

Example Contract

Year Age Base Salary Signing Bonus Cap Hit Guaranteed Dead Cap
Year Age Base Salary Signing Bonus Cap Hit Guaranteed Dead Cap
2019 30 $13M $5M $18M $18M (full) $72.3M
2020 31 $13M $5M $18M $18M (full) $54.3M
2021 32 $16.3M $5M $21.3M $21.3M (full) $36.3M
2022 33 $16.3M $5M $21.3M $10M $15M
2023 34 $16.4M $5M $21.4M $5M $5M

I don’t claim to be a cap wizard, so this is another relatively simple deal free of incentives or other bonuses. It’s structured in a similar fashion to the 2018 example, except in this case the team elects to give Julio lower base salaries in 2019 and 2020 in order to free up a few million in cap space. This is just a starting point, as well—it’s possible Julio could ask for more than whatever OBJ gets, and then these numbers start to get even crazier.

This deal will cost the team $10M more over the course of the deal. That’s not a huge issue. The main issue is that Julio’s cap hits in the final three years of the contract will be $3M more than they would have in the 2018 example. While $3M isn’t a back-breaking number, that’s enough for a second-round RFA tender or a mid-range veteran contract. Having the flexibility to add another of those players, or take that money and make it a part of an extension for someone like Vic Beasley, could make a big difference in the long run.

It also adds more guaranteed money to the deal and stretches that money further into Julio’s career. 2022 will be Julio’s age 33 season, and he’ll still be making $21.3M against the cap. The team won’t be able to cut him, either, since that would invoke almost $15M in dead cap. Good luck getting Julio to agree to another deal with very little guaranteed money in the final two years, however, as that’s what caused this whole mess in the first place.

There are some positives, though. If the team can use the money they have left over in 2018 to extend Jake Matthews and Grady Jarrett before they both hit the open market, that could end up saving the team money in the long run. It’s hard to say if that will equal out to Julio’s savings and the higher risk that accompany the later years of his contract, but it could help. The way this deal is structured also slightly lowers Julio’s 2020 cap hit (by about $250K), which isn’t much but could provide some emergency cap room for a cheap veteran.

Overall, though, this strategy ends up costing the team more money and probably puts a significant dent in the relationship between Julio and the team. Perhaps that will heal, in time, but it may not—and that would be tragic for perhaps the most beloved member of the franchise at this point.

So, what do the Falcons do?

With Julio doubling-down on his holdout, it seems inevitable to me that the Falcons will work out a new contract with Julio prior to the start of the 2018 regular season. It may or may not end up saving the team money long-term—Matthews’ and Jarrett’s contracts could escalate in 2019, wiping out the savings—but it would make one of the pillars of the franchise happy and hopefully salvage the relationship.

Julio is my favorite player on the Falcons, and I would hate to see him upset on the sidelines during the regular season. 2018 could very well be the Falcons’ year to win it all—they have a stacked roster on both sides of the ball and will hopefully see some positive regression on offense. Is it worth risking all that just to preserve a contract negotiation precedent that likely won’t even matter in a few years? The new CBA is going to tear all this nonsense up and start over regardless of what happens between Julio and the team.

Plus, just because Julio does it, doesn’t mean anyone else can. Sure, you can threaten to hold out of regular season games if you’re Julio Jones, but could anyone else who isn’t a franchise QB get away with that and not get cut or fined into oblivion? Could Ricardo Allen? Could Brooks Reed? Hell, could someone like Vic Beasley? I don’t think so. It’s a star-driven league, and Julio is a star. You pay your stars what they’re worth, or they won’t be your stars for long.

It’s time to stop playing hardball, Falcons. Give Julio Jones his new contract. Then, let’s finally get to winning the Super Bowl in Atlanta.