In what’s surely going to start having a lot of us doing a double-take this morning, a new report indicates the Atlanta Falcons appear open to trading franchise wide receiver Julio Jones at some point this offseason.
With the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft gets underway Thursday, the MMQB’s Albert Breer reports Monday that the team is “listening to offers” about Jones in what would seem to be a cap-oriented move, and surmised that a first-round pick or so would be compensation.
It wouldn’t shock me if Julio Jones gets traded at some point this offseason. I’m told the Falcons are listening to offers on the five-time All-Pro as part of a larger effort to clean up the salary cap—as it stands right now, the Falcons wouldn’t even be able to sign their draft class. Basically, the new brass told other teams they’d listen to offers on any of the more expensive players on the roster. They got some interest in linebacker Deion Jones, then decided to restructure his contract and keep him. They’ve restructured Matt Ryan and left tackle Jake Matthews as well. Calls have come in on Jones too, but his deal hasn’t been reworked yet. What would it take to get Jones out of Atlanta? My guess is a first-round pick, or some equivalent. He’s 32, but he’s still shown he can play when healthy, and the three years left on his deal are reasonable ($15.3 million this year, $11.513 million in 2022 and $11.513 million in 2023). Now, if you look at the makeup of his contract, the Falcons would want to wait until after June 1 to actually execute any sort of deal (which would soften the cap blow). But a deal could be agreed to before then, and these sorts of ideas are always batted around during draft week. So it’ll be interesting to see if anything on Jones picks up in the coming days.
NBC Sports’ NFL columnist Peter King threw out that very scenario in his latest column, too. King has said “it would not surprise” him if Falcons were putting the framework together for a trade involving Jones. Here’s his reasoning.
Surprises? Keep an eye on Atlanta. I can’t predict any bombshells. But a few things would not surprise me. Most notably, the Falcons putting the framework of a trade together for star wideout Julio Jones, and making the trade effective June 2. That way, Atlanta could split Jones’ cap charge between 2021 and 2022 instead of getting bashed with it all this year. So if such a trade happens, I expect it could involve a future pick or picks, nothing this year. (A future second-round pick as compensation seems fair to me.) Because such a trade wouldn’t be official till June, no picks in this draft could be involved. As for the interested team or teams, I would guess Las Vegas; Jon Gruden couldn’t resist Antonio Brown, and I doubt he could resist Julio Jones. New England too, and a couple of teams with clear receiver needs—Tennessee and Baltimore.
Now, the Falcons don’t really want to trade Julio Jones. He’s a franchise legend. But he’s 32, entering his 11th season, coming off a banged-up year with seven games missed due to injury, and the Falcons are in cap jail. If they could off-load his money and cushion it by splitting it between this year ($7.75 million) and next ($15.5 million), Atlanta’s cap charge on Jones this year goes down by a tad more than $15 million.
One final note here, to be very clear: I am not reporting the Falcons will trade Jones, or will probably trade Jones. I am saying it would not surprise me if it happened.
NFL’s Ian Rapoport chimed in, adding that, while the team has received calls, a trade isn’t expected this week but is possible down the road.
The #Falcons have received calls from teams inquiring about possible trades for All-Pro WR Julio Jones, sources say. A trade could not happen for cap reasons before June 1, but teams know Atlanta’s brutal cap situation and are calling. A deal won’t happen now, but later? Maybe.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) April 26, 2021
A Julio Jones trade would send shockwaves through the fan base, as he’s one of the absolutely greatest players ever to don a Falcons jersey, up there with franchise legends like Matt Ryan, Jessie Tuggle, Tommy Nobis and Deion Sanders. He might be the franchise’s greatest talent, period. But King’s reasoning holds: his trade value might not come any higher than it does now for a contending team, and securing a future first-or-second-round pick for his services and opens up cap space for the Falcons to sign the rookies with ease and add a free agent or two after the draft.
Later in the column, King sends Florida tight end Kyle Pitts to the Falcons at Pick 4 in his only mock draft of 2021. Breer says noise for Pitts going to Atlanta has “grown louder” recently, too, and that a “good number” of teams think he’s the guy the Falcons take. The logic here might extend thusly: would Pitts be Jones’ replacement? One generational talent would potentially give way to another if all of this adds up, and the Falcons would head into the future with Calvin Ridley and Pitts as its primary receiving threats for the future, with Russell Gage and Hayden Hurst mixing in at least for now.
Breer says in his piece, “For what it’s worth, the buzz around the NFL has been that Fontenot and Smith are comfortable going forward with Ryan, if [Pitts is] where Atlanta lands.”
Here’s why it feels a little off, at least in a cumulative sense. The timing of all these reports, which all came rolling in about the same time, could certainly indicate that they’re originating from teams trying to get Julio, and may not accurately indicate the team’s desire to move him. At the very least, the language used in all these reports should make us think that this is more of a maybe than a it’ll probably happen. If the Falcons are going to draft Pitts, it signals renewed faith in Ryan and opens up more potential for this team to make some sort of quick rebound for a playoff push. It means this team feels it’s got the pieces to win now, or at least feels it’s not too far off from that. It means you’d want as much talent as you could have, which would include keeping and featuring your Hall of Fame wide receiver, no matter his age or recent injury history. There are other ways to fix the cap than trade a guy Ryan has relied on for the bulk of his career, not to mention one of the most popular players in team history.
It’s possible the team could feel Ryan has more gas left in the tank than Jones does and wants compensation now, but Ryan’s always been a better quarterback with Jones on the field. It feels like the two are a package deal, but maybe the new regime doesn’t think so.
If the Falcons actually traded Jones, it would make much more sense, at least to me, to draft a Justin Fields or Trey Lance at quarterback and fully usher in the new era. Swapping one great player out for the other might make sense on the books, but it wouldn’t do much to help a win-now approach. Even if Pitts is a gold jacket guy, he’s going to need time to adjust to the NFL. That doesn’t help Ryan, in a new system, win games right away. Having his reliable receiver does, though.
As we’ve all been saying with the first-round pick, I guess we’ll see as this unpredictable offseason continues.