“I love this city, and I’m committed to being a Falcon for life”, Julio Jones stated following the signing of a 3 year, $66 million contract extension in 2019. Less than two years later, and with that extension kicking in this coming season, Julio Jones’ commitment has wavered. On May 24th, Ian Rapoport reported that Jones had approached the new Falcons front office about the possibility of being traded. Earlier that day, he’d confirmed to Shannon Sharpe, on Fox Sports’ Undisputed, that he “wants to win”. No matter which way you try to frame it, the days of Julio Jones being a “Falcon for life” are over.
Whispers that the Falcons have been open to trading Julio Jones have been swirling since before the 2021 NFL Draft. The official line from the organization, since those rumors began to surface, has been to the effect of “no one is off the table, and we have to consider everything because of the cap.” Naturally, part of the reason we’re here is because of the cap. They’ve been pushing the problem down the road for years. That has left the Falcons in a situation where their stalwart quarterback is slated to count for just over $48mil against the cap in 2022. Where their top 3 offensive earners will take up 36.44% of their available funds in 2021. That isn’t a sustainable business model.
When “win-now” fails
“Keeping the band together, no matter the cost” is understandable, and somewhat forgivable, when you’re winning. See the Tampa Bay Buccaneers retaining every single starter from last season. See the New Orleans Saints repeatedly reworking everyone’s deals to keep their window open a little while longer. To the point where their biggest cap hit in 2021 comes from the now-retired Drew Brees. In 2022, he’ll be in their top 15. Unlike the Buccaneers and the Saints, winning hasn’t been something the Falcons have done particularly often over the past few years. Unfortunately, it’s not overly likely to be something they do often in the next few years, either.
I remember listening to an episode of Matt Chernoff’s “Welcome to Mattlanta” podcast in November last year, where he spoke with Mike Smith about his time as the Falcons head coach. He stated that, following the 2013 NFC Championship defeat, the focus stopped being on the process, and started being “what do we need to make the Super Bowl”. They started chasing that one play, rather than focussing on themselves. Seemingly, no lessons were learned from that aftermath. The Falcons did everything they could to keep the nucleus of that 2016 side together, and tried to figure out that one missing thing, rather than looking inwards at what needed to improve. They just kept chasing LI, when they should have been more concerned about the team as a whole. That’s what gets you a situation where the Falcons can’t afford to sign their rookie class in 2021.
With that in mind, is it any wonder Julio Jones wants out? The career of any sportsperson is incredibly short, more so in the NFL, and the Falcons haven’t done a good enough job to maximize Jones’ talents. When asked a decade ago where he sees his career in 2021, the most likely answer will have been “with a fist full of rings, on a team that is in the conversation every year.” 4 of Jones’ 10 seasons in the NFL have ended in a playoff appearance. 2 of them took him to the championship game. 1 of them, to the Super Bowl. 0 with a ring. For a player of his immense talent, that just isn’t good enough. He knows that. And here we are.
Julio Jones isn’t like other receivers. He doesn’t talk much. Between January and August, he seems to disappear. This saga is the first time, that I can recall, Julio has been the focal point of the conversation around the league, nationally. He is a professional. He has been his entire time as a Falcon. Likewise, Terry Fontenot deserves credit for treating Julio like the icon he is. Jones has given so much to this team over his career that he has earned the right to leave if he wants to. If we’re being honest, Fontenot probably breathed a sigh of relief when that conversation happened, purely because he was presented an easy way out of the Falcons 2021 cap issues.
What needs to be said, however, is that this needs to be favorable for both parties. Julio Jones has made it clear that he wants to win. That in itself eliminates over half the league from the conversation. The issue, from that point, is that the sides that fit that description aren’t exactly flush for cash themselves. The Tennessee Titans are the name that has come up more than most, and they currently have $3.7mil to spare. Yes, they can make certain restructures to accommodate Jones, but do they believe they’re one receiver away from winning it all? Especially when the man behind their offensive uptick has moved on? I wouldn’t be so sure.
Then there’s the Falcons. As we’ve established, the new Falcons brass want to win now, and win moving forward. Removing Julio Jones automatically makes that remit more difficult to meet. So it’s going to take something seriously worthwhile to make them part ways with the franchise receiver. All signs point to the Falcons wanting at least a 1st round pick for #11. Is that asking a lot, for a player of Julio’s age, and injury history? Perhaps. But when you consider that he averages over 15 yards a catch, and 45% of his games have seen him manage over 100 yards, maybe not. Julio Jones will give you far more over the next 3 seasons than you’re likely to get from a rookie in his first 3 seasons.
That isn’t to mention the optics, either. The selection of Kyle Pitts gives the impression the new setup is going to make watching the Falcons offense fun again. They absolutely have to put out a viable product in 2021, and backing the offense is one way of doing that. Take away the star player, and you’re selling an already skeptical crowd fools gold.
What happens next?
How does this get resolved? Well, it’s difficult to tell, really. It’s clear that Julio Jones doesn’t believe the Falcons are capable of being a serious contender for the remainder of his career. And the Falcons’ financial constraints mean that they can’t simply accept anything from whichever team Jones most likes the look of. If I had to guess, I suspect the Falcons will climb down from their 1st round demands, thought’s a credit to the strength of Fontenot that we’re even discussing that level of compensation.
The best move, for all parties, would be to have a conversation. Really discuss, and take on board, each other’s concerns heading into 2021, and try to work through them. If there’s enough compromise from both sides, a scenario could be reached where Jones remains a Falcon in 2021, with the agreement to release him from his contract at the end of the season. The J.J. Watt method, if you will. For a while, I’ve held the belief that 2021 would be Jones’ last in Atlanta. That scenario would give the Falcons a watchable product in 2021, and Jones the freedom to pick his next destination for the final years of his career. An amicable split, which could ultimately benefit both parties.
Regardless, this situation shouldn’t muddy the legacy Julio Jones has created in Atlanta. He holds just about every record a receiver can hold in red and black, and it’s unlikely the Falcons will truly replace him for some time yet. We’d have all liked him to play his entire career in Atlanta, ala Roddy White, but some things aren’t meant to be. Let’s just hope that we’re given the opportunity to see catching passes as a Falcon one more time.