Julio Jones is being traded to the Tennessee Titans. I’m typing that very obvious thing that you learned hours ago because it still does not feel real, and typing it a few times is helping it sink in a little. It’s going to obviously be the thing we talk about for a while, and if I weren’t so depressed about seeing my favorite Falcon headed elsewhere, I’d be relieved that we have a resolution at last.
There will be plenty of time to talk about what Julio meant to this franchise and our memories of his time here, as well as the more practical impacts on the offense, but as I’m working through this myself I thought we’d look at the implications of the trade for both teams. There are plenty, and it’s something to do other than watching Matt Ryan passes to Julio Jones in a dark room for several hours.
The Falcons now will have cash to spend
After the deal is official, Julio’s cap hit comes off the books and the Falcons will have more than $15 million in cap space. A significant chunk of that is going to go to signing their draft class, of course, but they’ll also have enough wiggle room to add, say, an affordable veteran pass rusher, more depth at running back, and help at receiver if they’d like to. None of that makes up for not having Julio and the Falcons don’t exactly figure to enjoy an easy cap situation next year, but it’s something.
In all, the Falcons should have over $8 million after they get the draft class squared away, and with that cash comes the big question of just how good this team thinks they can be this year. Do they try to square away depth because they already believe they can win with what they have, or do they put that cash toward a couple of minor splashes because they know they’re not good enough as constructed? I don’t think this team is going to be content to hang around in the basement of the NFC South after three losing seasons, so they’re not going to sit on that money, but the signings they do make will clue us in to what they think of the roster today.
Atlanta’s receiver corps takes a big hit
Losing Julio Jones makes this offense worse. I’m as bullish as anybody on Arthur Smith’s ability to lift this offense, particularly in the red zone, but Julio’s impact as a coverage magnet inside the 20 and his ability to punish defenses all over the field makes life more difficult. All of Atlanta’s options to replace him outside are decidedly not Julio—I mean no disrespect by saying so, but it’s obvious—and this team is going to have to have someone other than the already-stellar Calvin Ridley step up in a bit way to make up for that.
The heavy usage of two tight end sets in Smith’s offense figures to help, given that Atlanta has two quality pass catching options, but the reality is that the Falcons will likely need Pitts to be special right out of the gate to be an elite offense. Maximizing the weapons they do have and getting the run game back to being an asset rather than a liability will go a long way, but Smith’s going to have to be as brilliant as he looked in Tennessee and Matt Ryan’s going to need to be excellent to make up for the loss of Julio.
The Falcons now have to figure out who replaces Julio
It could be a combination of players—Kyle Pitts will split out wide at times—but there’s going to at least be a nominal starter opposite Calvin Ridley. Is that Russell Gage, who is coming off a quality year and is the most established option on the roster at the moment, even if he’s spent quite a bit of his career operating out of the slot? Is it Tajae Sharpe, the recent signing who had a fine year under Arthur Smith in Tennessee? Or is it rookie Frank Darby, who would presumably have to dazzle this summer to get the job but brings an intriguing skill set to Atlanta? It’s also possible, though seemingly unlikely given who is on the open market, that the Falcons will choose someone not currently on the team.
Whoever it is won’t need to be Julio—the addition of Pitts and Ridley’s emergence means the target share for the team’s nominal No. 2 receiver is probably going to shrink, potentially significantly—but they’ll need to be a capable starter to ensure this doesn’t become the Pitts and Ridley show alone. It jumps right near the top of the intriguing roster questions for this team heading into training camp.
Atlanta will need to maximize its return for this trade
We were warned for months by reporters including The Athletic’s Jeff Schultz that the Falcons would likely not get a first-round pick back for Julio, so the return is not exactly a surprise. Atlanta did get a second rounder and a 2023 fourth rounder in exchange for Julio while sending a 2023 sixth rounder back to the Titans, but when you’re trading one of the best players in the history of your franchise, that return is never going to feel good enough.
Obviously, you’re not likely to get a player in the same neighborhood as Julio with a second-round pick, but the Falcons are in need of substantial additions to the roster no matter how well they fare this year. That extra second-round pick is an opportunity to add another quality starter Atlanta otherwise wouldn’t have had the opportunity to snag, one who will come aboard on a relatively affordable four-year deal as the team tries to pry open a new window as a contender. That fourth-round pick is obviously less valuable, but if all goes reasonably well, that’s at least another useful reserve.
If the Titans are any good—and frankly, any coaching-related downgrades from losing Arthur Smith seem unlikely to be fatal given the talent on hand—it’ll be a late second, and the Falcons will have to turn that pick (and to a lesser extent, the 2023 fourth) into quality players for this trade not to feel really lackluster. If they don’t, this will end up looking like a salary dump, and that’s going to feel pretty bad if Julio’s still Julioing in Tennessee in a couple of years.
Winning is what will win fans back
At the end of the day, trading Julio Jones is rough, because for a guy who was a legitimate franchise icon and future Ring of Honor inductee, moving on was never going to be easy. I know there are plenty of fans among us who will find it easy to dust their hands and keep going, but for a lot of us this is a tough pill to swallow and one that clearly makes this team worse on paper in 2021.
But winning sets things right, as we all remember after 2015 fans were way down on Kyle Shanahan and (depending on who you asked) Matt Ryan, and 2016 changed the perception of both and this team more generally until they squandered that goodwill in the post-Shanahan years. No one’s going to forget about Julio, but this team was going to have to win some games to get fans weary of crummy play and choppy offseasons back to feeling excited about their favorite team. That’s just even more true now with one of the team’s biggest stars over the past decade now headed elsewhere.