Today began so promisingly. The sun was shining, the hours ahead seemed full of potential, and then we heard Julio Jones say he’s out of Atlanta.
Reporters and rumormongers alike have been talking about the possibility of Julio Jones leaving Atlanta for months now, but any non-cap-related motivation for that was largely hidden until today. The slow build and burn of the Julio rumors to this point have meant there was some wiggle room for you to interpret things as you wished, or at least to be uncertain about whether the team would actually make a trade happen. That doubt still exists because it’s possible the Falcons simply don’t get any offer compelling enough to make a move, but if Julio wants to be traded and the Falcons want this to be the way they open up cap space for the rest of 2021, it feels like it’s now when and not if. That is sobering, to put it mildly.
I thought it might be helpful to take a quick step back, look at where things stand as far as we’re aware, and talk about some of the endless implications of today’s comments.
Julio wants and has wanted out
Atlanta’s new regime has already shown themselves to be a tight-lipped bunch, wholly uninterested in tipping us off to their intentions. It turns out their interest in Kyle Pitts was sincere, but they pumped enough smoke out of Flowery Branch to keep most of us guessing until the end. The same thing was happening with the Julio trade, where they were clearly listening but we didn’t have a great read on how motivated they were, until the last week or so.
The first big clue was in Jeff Schultz’s report at The Athletic last week, even though Schultz has been reporting out the possibility of a trade for months before that. He wrote that the Falcons want to trade Julio Jones (not new but strongly put) and more strikingly that they still had not approached Grady Jarrett’s camp about a extension. There is still time for that, of course, and the Falcons could just restructure Jarrett’s deal for relief if they’re so inclined. But it was difficult to wave away the team’s obvious preference for moving Julio, even if that was hard to square with an offseason that seemed geared around giving this team as much help on offense as possible despite their very real financial limitations.
Julio’s comments to Shannon Sharpe, and Ian Rapoport’s almost immediate followup haymaker, clarified a lot. If Julio wants out and the Falcons are motivated to move him, the lack of any momentum with Jarrett makes perfect sense. They know they’re going to make a move and are just waiting for the right compensation.
Why Julio wants to leave
We don’t know.
Julio said to Shannon Sharpe that he wants to win, but he did not say that in response to “why do you want out of Atlanta?” It’s fair to speculate that Julio doesn’t feel like he can win in Atlanta, or that he’s simply looking for a change of scenery, or that he wants to be closer to the ocean so he can rule this world from the briny deep, so long as you understand that we’re talking about speculation.
Until we get more concrete reports or Julio comes right out and says it, all we know is that Julio has reportedly requested a trade and he’s looking for a new home. As frustrating as it is, we don’t know the why, and it’s not a given that we ever will.
Where Julio might be going
This is very much an open question. The number of teams that would benefit from having Julio Jones is just the number of teams in the NFL, but the number of teams motivated to trade for him and with the cap space to do so is a much smaller number.
Jonathan Jones at CBS Sports notes that about a quarter of the league has the cap space,
The Broncos swinging for Aaron Rodgers and adding Julio would obviously be a massive move, while the Packers would have to carve out a lot of space to make it even a possibility. Generally speaking, you’re talking about contenders and would-be contenders looking to add Julio for the value he can bring over the next 1-3 seasons as a #1 option and locker room leader. Simply put, you have to have money and a short term window of success, or at least a perceived one.
The Packers make the most sense because nabbing Julio would likely make Rodgers quite happy, but I don’t know how they’ll carve out that money. A team like the Bills, Rams, or Patriots who seem to be pushing their chips toward the middle of the table for a 2021 title make a ton of sense. The Broncos, if they think they have a real shot at getting Rodgers, should be strong contenders. The Ravens and 49ers have been repeatedly brought up for good reason: They’re exciting young teams who would immediately benefit from the addition of someone as good as Julio.
What the Falcons will get back
Again, this is a big question. Jonathan Jones reports that the Falcons aren’t going to be motivated to move Julio for less than a 2nd round pick, and they’d obviously like to get more back than that. It only takes one team with a burning desire to make a big splash for their offense and fanbase to raise that price, and here I’m looking hard at the Broncos and Raiders in particular.
If this team is not desperate to move him—and unless there’s something deep and deeply wrong here we’re not privy to, they’re likely not—then this could drag on for quite a while. Julio is 32 years old and expensive this year, but he’s still Julio Jones, and despite his injuries last year I haven’t seen any evidence that his skill set is dulling in any significant way. Teams have given up far more for far less, and eventually a team that really wants him figures to pony up a 2nd and potentially another pick or player. The question is whether the Falcons will be able to whip up enough of a market to get that deal, since they evidently have not to this point.
What’s the timeline?
This lines up with the “what the Falcons get back,” because if they receive an offer to their liking tomorrow, that’ll likely mark the end of the saga. But is there a point at which Atlanta would just consider keeping Jones?
Veteran NFL insider Steve Wyche, who has also been contributing for the Falcons site, thinks this could drag out until or even into training camp. If Julio’s determined to move and the Falcons are determined to move him, there may not be a hard deadline for getting a deal done at all. That raises the specter of a Julio holdout.
What happens when he’s gone
The offense is obviously diminished. This isn’t a slight to Calvin Ridley, who showed he can function as the team’s #1 receiver and thrive, or to Kyle Pitts, who I’d expect to be an immediately useful and difficult-to-defend tight end. It’s just that none of this seems likely to work quite as well without Julio.
After all, you’re talking about replacing this team’s leading receiver for 6 out of the last 7 seasons. Julio has the size, speed, route running acumen and hands to give every defender in the NFL fits, and he’s been Matt Ryan’s most trusted target all these years for a reason. Even when Julio wasn’t burning NFL cornerbacks to a crisp, he was commanding extra attention from defenses that gave other receiving options better matchups. Pitts and Ridley will command plenty of defensive resources and gameplanning themselves, but neither one is Julio Jones. The Falcons will need to have a better ground game and get plenty out of Russell Gage, Hayden Hurst, Olamide Zaccheaus, and potentially rookie Frank Darby to keep this thing really humming.
The good news, if anything qualifies as good news in this situation, is that Ryan should still be a good quarterback, the supporting cast is still strong even if it’s not superlative without Julio, and Arthur Smith and company still figure to be a big upgrade on last year’s offensive coaching staff. That last piece is especially crucial, given how heavily it seems the coaching staff is betting on itself, but it’s also one of the easiest things to believe in after Smith’s work in Tennessee the past two seasons. The floor for this offense still feels like it’s sitting pretty high and the ceiling is still looming well over our heads, which is about as close to a silver lining as I can muster right now.
Why this all stinks
Falcons football is not going to be as fun without Julio Jones if a trade happens, and this offense very likely won’t be as productive without him. When we first saw the rumors about this team trading Ryan and Jones, it was easy to dismiss them, and even with all the quarterback intrigue around the draft, it was clear #2 was going to be here for at least one more year. Now it’s clear Julio might not even be here for training camp.
As a fan, I want this team to be successful first and foremost, but being truly invested in a team means you become truly invested in the players and coaches who make it successful (or, in Atlanta’s case, make it somewhat successful). Few players in all my years of watching this team have proven to be as legitimately thrilling to watch as Julio Jones, and only a small handful of players have had the same kind of impact on Atlanta’s fortunes as he has. It’s a business and business decisions will be made, but we’re not in that business. We’re in the business of living and dying with the Atlanta Falcons, and if or when this happens, it’s going to suck. The only question now is whether the Falcons will get the compensation they need to move Julio, or at least when they will.
The Falcons will have enough talent to be a very good offense and they may well win a bunch of games when the dust settles, which will obviously ease the sting of all this considerably. But Julio’s an all-time great and a future Hall of Famer, and there’s simply no way to replace him on the field or in terms of what he’s meant to this team and this fanbase over the past decade.