Deion Jones has been a fan favorite and a lightning rod for fan criticism. He’s been one of the most celebrated linebackers in the league, someone considered a prototype player, and also a player who is not viewed as having fallen behind some of the linebackers in the same mold who came after him. He piles up stats and has delivered some of the best highlights this defense has produced over the past decade, but he also had a brutal 34.6 Pro Football Focus grade and has been on the wrong end of some brutal lowlights. He’s still, somehow, just 27 years old.
Jones is a divisive player, in other words, and also one of two players left on the defense with huge contracts that the Falcons now have to make a decision on. He heads into the 2022 season with his running mate at inside linebacker, Foye Oluokun, headed to Jacksonville and Mykal Walker likely stepping into the starting job next to him. That assumes, of course, that the Falcons elect not to effectively blow up the position and move Jones for cap relief both this year and next year, which is a possibility.
What happens next for Deion Jones? There are a couple of scenarios.
I still think this is the most likely scenario. Jones cannot be cut pre-June 1 without leaving a $24 million dead cap charge, and a trade leaves nearly $10.7 million in dead money versus just under $9.4 million in savings. We’ll talk more about post-June 1 decisions soon, but suffice to say you’re not putting yourself in a hugely advantageous cap situation by moving him now.
It’s also likely going to be easy for Dean Pees and company to talk themselves into Jones improving in year two, because it’s easy for teams to bet on players with elite athleticism. Jones hasn’t been that player since his truncated 2018 season, but he still flashes that elite ability in stretches, remains young enough to have great years ahead of him, and was being asked to adjust to a different role in a different scheme. If Pees and company are worth their salt as coaches—and they certainly think they are, as all experienced coaches do—they’ll likely bank on being able to get more out of Jones while simultaneously coaching up Walker and/or a rookie.
Keeping him this year allows the Falcons to get a closer look at whether that belief pays off and Jones returns to his days of high-end play, in which case they can look to extend his contract either during or after the 2023 season. If that doesn’t happen, they can easily trade him for peanuts or cut ties with him next offseason to save close to $20 million in cap space with only $5 or so million in dead money, further fueling what’s expected to be a big 2023 spending spree.
Trade him post-June 1
If the Falcons want to tinker with their roster after the draft, free up money to sign the rookie draft class, and be in a good position to sign players after the initial roster cutdowns this summer, they could move Jones. A post-June 1 trade carries a dead money charge of $5.3 million, but frees up $14.7 million in cap space this year and gets his contract off the books for 2023, which again puts this team in a position to be big spenders.
The advantage of this, in addition to the money, is twofold. The first is that you can find out whether you get a high-end rookie inside linebacker who can step in and replace Jones or whether you’ll be forced to sign a stopgap at the position, and either way you’re not moving him with no ready-made solution available. The second is that you’ll acquire what’s likely to be a Day 3 selection in the 2023 NFL Draft, where the Falcons could stand to stockpile picks to supplement what could be a huge free agent class next year. That’s especially true because they’re not currently tracking to have any compensatory picks.
Again, the team would have to feel good that they’re not selling extremely low on Jones, that they have a player who will be as good or better ready to take over in 2022, and that they’ll get a solid pick back. If they’re assured of those things, I can see them wanting that cap space and getting this done.
What will the Falcons do?
This is one where I don’t really have a strong feeling. With Oluokun gone, my working expectation has been that the Falcons will value giving Jones one more shot in this defense and preparing themselves to move on or otherwise address his contract in 2023 depending on his play. That’s a straightforward move that banks on Jones improving, but it means the Falcons aren’t scrambling to find another replacement at inside linebacker.
Whether they do so or not may depend heavily on what happens with Grady Jarrett, however. If Jarrett is extended or dealt and the Falcons free up enough cap space to sign a small handful of players and get their draft class on board, they may not touch Jones’ contract. If that’s not the case or that’s simply not enough money to get by, trading Jones post-June 1 is the only other way the Falcons can free up truly significant cap space to tackle other needs. If they’re not convinced Jones can be the player he once was, that feels like a no-brainer, regardless of what happens with Jarrett.
It will be interesting to see what the team does, but I wouldn’t expect any real clarity on Jones’ status immediately. If they add talent at inside linebacker through free agency, the draft, or both, I think you can start connecting the dots there.