Are the Atlanta Falcons really about to trade their best player?
NFL columnist Peter King calls a 60/40 chance of trading future Hall of Fame receiver Julio Jones by Labor Day, which appears to be an update to his north of 50/50 chances stance. This would be a franchise-altering earthquake that would, most likely, devastate a fanbase rightfully attached to Julio and shake up the team’s offense for 2021.
Rumors have been swirling since the draft that the Falcons might be willing to trade Jones, the team’s All-Pro receiver and long-best player. At first, it seemed more conjecture, a “if you call, we’ll talk” type situation, but King has been ramping up his predictions more and more as time has gone on, and the team has been keenly noncommittal about Jones’ future with the organization.
The company line has been about the cap space the team doesn’t have, and a post-June 1 Jones move would net the team about $15 million in cap relief for 2021. Though, for a new regime that has been vocal about wanting to “win now,” a trade of Jones only benefits the future of the team. There is no conceivable way that trading a player of his caliber would benefit the Falcons in any way come fall, because even if you add a slew of reasonably-priced free agents to shore up spots and help the defense, you’re not replacing Julio’s impact and ability easily. A veteran pass rusher or cornerback wouldn’t hurt, but it’d pale in comparison to what Jones brings to the table.
If the Falcons trade Jones, it’s because their eyes are fixed fully on the future of the team, and/or because they don’t feel there’s a good alternative.
Sure, getting cap savings for 2021 would help the team out a bit for adding some guys to the roster pre-season and getting the draft class signed. But you can get that relief elsewhere, much easier (Grady Jarrett’s contract can still be reworked or extended, though it takes two to tango there). Plus, the team is right now only going to get about $3.7 million in relief for 2022 for Jones if he’s traded this summer and pay about $15 million in dead money (per OTC). The business side of this doesn’t really make sense for the football side if you just look at the numbers. You trade Matt Ryan’s top target for cap relief you will sign the draft class and maybe one street free agent on defense with, and pay $15 million in dead money in 2022 for your “quick turnaround?”
It’s the draft you watch. This team opted to add as much young, cheap talent as it could this past offseason with the cap space what it was, and it may be looking to do that again in 2022. They’ll have more cap space in 2022 (without rookies signed and with Jones on contract, they’ve got about $22 million to play with, per OTC), but they’ll still likely want to build as much as they can through cheap, high-return draft contracts.
The new regime really may want to store up food for the winter, and by trading a player like Jones, they could guarantee a return on draft investment now, before he plays another down, to the tune of a second-round pick. They’re unlikely to get a first at this point in Jones’ career, but if a New England, Baltimore, San Francisco, Green Bay or Tennessee came calling with proper compensation, it might be part of Atlanta’s grand plan to move Jones now and get his replacement in 2022 in the draft. The team could also, potentially, get a young receiver back in the deal, but that’s just a wish and a guess.
They’ll probably have signed Calvin Ridley to an extension by then, too, which makes it more justifiable to pay him to be your top receiver, too. Speaking of Ridley...
The Falcons have extended Ridley’s option for his fifth-year, which sets his cap hit for about $11 million next year. The Falcons, if they kept Jones next fall and paid Ridley, would have about $30 million tied up at the position. It’s a little funky to say they’d still have $26 million at the spot next fall without Jones around if they traded him, which is why a lot of us don’t really understand the non-draft benefits of trading him right now, but nonetheless. With Kyle Pitts already expected to be a pretty highly paid option at the tight end position, there’s a lot of cash tied up in pass catchers.
If the organization feels that Ridley is ready for top billing, it may have Christian Blake, Russell Gage, rookie Frank Darby and new tight end Kyle Pitts assume Jones’ snaps on offense and get the 2018 first-round pick accustomed this year to life in the fast lane as the team’s full-time top target, something he got an extended taste of last year. Ryan and Ridley have good chemistry now, after all. The sticking point of not drafting a quarterback seemed to be that the team would be willing to invest around Ryan while he’s still playing at a high level. Trading Jones doesn’t do that for this year. What it does do, though, is accustom Ridley to life without attention being given Jones’ way. He got plenty of reps for that last fall when Jones missed time with injury, but it’s a different world when teams know all season the Jet won’t be there.
With Gage in his contract year and Pitts still quite young, the Falcons would be venturing into the future with an immediate need at receiver. They’d almost certainly spend a Day 1 or Day 2 draft pick on a receiver in that scenario. Smith and new GM Terry Fontenot are playing the long game in Atlanta, and even Ryan’s future with the organization is unsettled despite the team’s obvious interest in winning with him in at least the short term. If they do trade Jones, it’d be a decision made with future seasons in sight, albeit one also with immediate cap benefits.
The Falcons will probably have Ridley signed by next fall, especially if Jones was traded. In Tennessee, Arthur Smith had A.J. Brown and Corey Davis as his top options. He may feel like he’s got a top guy in Ridley and want to find his much cheaper version of Davis in the draft next spring. Do the Falcons think they can win long-term without Jones? Perhaps, and this move would hint to that.
Worries about Jones’ longevity
If the Falcons do trade Jones before Labor Day, there, somewhere in this decision, will be the fact that he only played nine games last fall. Jones is 32 and is on contract through his 35th birthday, effectively. If the Falcons are really set on trading him, Jones’ age and durability would presumably have to be in question for the long haul.
Are the Falcons worried about having such an expensive player ride the bench more as he ages? Is there legitimate worry about the status of the hamstring that held him back so much last year? Are they simply not convinced he’ll be a #1 option anymore with Ridley on the rise and Pitts in the fold?
The Falcons went 2-1 last year in games where Jones had 100+ yards, and lost in narrow defeats in the other two games where he got close to the 100 mark. His impact on this team was still felt deeply last season, even with him missing seven games. This new regime would have to be skittish about more missed time, as well as the possibility of an early retirement if injuries persisted. NFL Hall of Fame receiver Calvin Johnson’s early retirement (he was 30 when he called it quits) will loom over this decision. We heard three years ago or so from Falcons reporter Jeff Schultz, then with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, that Jones could potentially retire early, saying he thought Jones might think similarly to Johnson about his career. Of course, time has passed since then and Jones eventually got his contract after his summer holdout, but the sentiment still makes you wonder.
If the new guys think Jones had any possibility of wearing down over the next year or two, or moving on to the next stage in his career anytime soon (which, for a future Hall of Famer like #11, would be totally understandable), they might want to secure his eventual replacement now with that draft pick.
Not ready to win, or no alternative
This is a short reason, but a big one as to why the Falcons might trade Jones. As much as this new regime says it wants to “win now,” they really may not feel like this roster is ready for a Super Bowl run even with their fresh coaching. In that scenario, they really may want to invest in draft capital for the future and let Jones have a chance to win elsewhere.
Is the team not ready? Well, there are plenty of reasons coming off a 4-12 season that you would assume that. The team really might be waiting for 2022 or later to seriously push for playoff success, making this a bridge year where they’re learning, leaning heavily on veterans, and seeing how far they can go. In that scenario, you’d have to think the team values Ryan’s longevity but also is prepared to pivot if he shows decline. There’s a whole can of worms you’d open with asking, “if we’re not ready to win now, why not take a quarterback in the first round of the NFL Draft,” but we’ll leave that alone for a post-Jones trade world.
A trade of Jones might signal to the rest of the league that the Falcons don’t think 2021 is their year and would change the tenor of this upcoming season. It’d maybe even put other players like Grady Jarrett or Hayden Hurst on the trade block mid-season if they really don’t compete as well without Jones on the offense. There are a lot of “what ifs,” but trading Jones could give a hint into the team’s thoughts on its 2021 chances.
The other interpretation here is simply that the Falcons feel they have no choice. We’ve repeatedly pushed for the team to consider an extension with Grady Jarrett, a player who figures to be a building block on defense, but Jarrett has to want to talk extension and the Falcons have to want to make that move. If they’re not interested in that or can’t get Jarrett to the table, and they’re not interested in trimming potentially useful players like Hurst and Isaiah Oliver to scrounge up just enough cap space to get their rookie class under contract, a move with Julio might be the only reasonable route they feel they have left. Their hesitancy to tie themselves to a 32-year-old receiver for longer via a restructure likely says a lot about their reluctance to find themselves in a similar situation to the 2021 offseason again in the near future.
I’ll be transparent: I do not want the Falcons to trade Julio Jones. You won’t stand to gain much of anything besides cap relief, and stand to lose a lot of 2021 and beyond production by making this move. Your cap space situation won’t look much better in 2022, either, making this a move that can only be justified by a dire cap emergency or a very focused long-term plan. It would indicate a belief in Matt Ryan, Calvin Ridley, and Kyle Pitts that, while potentially quite justified, seems risky at the moment.
For now, it remains an uncomfortable possibility with as many negatives as positives to judge for how it impacts the Falcons today, tomorrow and down the road. It’d hurt like hell, too, to see Jones go. It’s going to be a long summer waiting to find out, so buckle in.