Over the past three months, the Falcons off-season has been interesting, to say the least. From the cuts, to the free agent signings to the draft class and now the trade of Julio Jones, the moves often seemed to lack a rhyme or reason.
Well, now that we have a more complete picture in front of us, much of what Terry Fontenot has done to this point is making far more sense, whether you’ve been a fan of the moves or not. It seems pretty clear that the entire off-season has been centered around the Julio Jones situation.
Let’s take a look at how the trade of Julio may have been a foregone conclusion to the new leadership.
Julio’s soured relationship with the Falcons
To be clear, the ground work for what happened this year really started a while back. Albert Breer at Sports Illustrated and Jeff Schultz at The Athletic have reported on this extensively, but we’ll go through a quick summary. Julio wanted corrections to his contract in 2017 and 2018. He got a pay bump but no major changes to his deal in 2018 and the big contract extension in 2019 that was supposed to make him a “Falcon for life,” in Arthur Blank’s words.
Yet, the negotiations were tough and apparently Jones told the team he wanted to be traded 2 years ago if the extension couldn’t be worked out. Dan Quinn had developed a strong relationship with Julio and when he was fired, Breer writes that it only deepened the divide between the team and its star receiver.
By the time Terry Fontenot took over in mid-January, per Breer and Schultz, the damage was already done. It appears that Julio wanted out very early on this year, apparently asking for the trade sometime in March. To add to all of this, Jones never met with Terry Fontenot or Arthur Smith once or showed up at Flowery Branch this offseason, according to reports.
In reality, Julio’s reasons for wanting out are probably pretty complex. The recent losing seasons, the contentious contract negotiations and the firing of Dan Quinn all contributed. One thing is pretty clear, though: Julio wanted out.
Fontenot and the salary cap
As his first off-season began to take shape, some of the moves had fans questioning if the new general manager really had a plan. Converting Matt Ryan’s salary to a bonus seemed to indicate they wanted to “win now” along with drafting Kyle Pitts (instead of a QB). Why would you keep Ryan and draft Pitts but actively shop Julio, especially if other cap related moves were still on the table? Why wouldn’t you approach Grady Jarrett about a contract extension first? Why not convert some of Julio’s salary to free up cap space? Why would you sign a player like Cordarrelle Patterson to a one year deal for $3 million?
At the time, the moves seemed incongruent. While some still argue about taking Pitts over Fields, per Jeff Schultz the team was not as big on Fields as they were Trey Lance. Once Lance was off the board, Pitts was the easy choice and had nothing to do with trying to “win now.”
Knowing that Julio wanted out and that they had the future WR1 already on the roster in Calvin Ridley, Fontenot must have seen one path that made the most sense: trade Julio after June to net over 15 million in cap space, move Ridley up to WR1 in 2021 and ultimately, give Jones what he wanted. Once the early calls came in to discuss potential trade compensation, Fontenot likely realized a trade would be doable, even if the team clearly never got blown away by an offer.
Given the fact that Julio wanted out and a trade after June 1st looked quite likely, Fontenot now had a good idea of what kind of cap space he would have prior to June and what he would have after the trade went through. This made signing guys like Patterson and Mike Davis easy to do, since Terry knew he would have 15 million in space after June 1st to sign his rookie class - with plenty of room to spare.
For Fontenot, approaching Jarrett about an extension wasn’t immediately necessary. If the trade for Julio didn’t work out, plan B may have involved restructuring part of the salaries for both Julio and Grady to sign the rookie class. As it stands now, Fontenot can wait until next off-season to see if an extension with Jarrett can be worked on. This gives him more leverage in the negotiations as Grady’s agent won’t have the desperate need for salary cap space to hang over the Atlanta GM.
Looking back, the moves made by Terry Fontenot make a lot more sense given what we now know. He wasn’t reckless with the salary cap; he knew trading a player who wanted out would give him the cap space he needed in June. He wasn’t incongruent in his team building philosophy, he just wasn’t going to try and force Julio to stay.
This may not be the outcome that fans wanted, but it may have been the only logical outcome. The team gets salary cap relief and draft picks and the disgruntled player gets to move on to another team.
We can also now say that Terry Fontenot’s off-season now makes a lot more sense, as it was almost entirely centered around the situation with Julio. The question is whether “makes sense” will translate into “worked out,” and we’ll have to wait to find that out.