The holdout that Julio Jones has been downplaying, if not outright denying, became official this week as Jones informed the Falcons he’ll skip mandatory minicamp. When Jones signed his five-year, $71.3 million deal in 2015, he became the NFL’s second highest-paid wide receiver (behind Calvin Johnson, who would retire after that year), edging out Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas, who had recently signed new mega deals. Since then, the landscape has changed. Bryant is unemployed, and Thomas is considered good but not great. Jones has gotten even better, but seven other receivers now have higher average salaries.
Jones is 29. This is almost certainly the highest long-term earning power he’ll ever have again. Some might not like that he’s acting on his leverage, but in the cutthroat NFL business, players and teams are conditioned to interpret a deal’s technicalities, not its spirit. And this deal’s technicalities give the Falcons recourse. They can fine Jones nearly $85,000 if he misses all three minicamp practices. Or, they can cut him and save $34.5 million of the $39.3 million he’s owed. It’s team leverage versus player leverage.
The Falcons also know that it’s unlikely Jones will sit out any regular season games. Holdouts rarely take it that far, especially when each of their game checks are just under a million bucks. But it’s not necessarily in the Falcons’ best interest to beat Jones in this staring contest. By being one of the few premium wide receivers who is not a prima donna and takes serious pride in his dirty work (including blocking), Jones is one of the NFL’s most respected players. He can lead without speaking. The rest of the locker room would take notice if management plays hardball with him. And, on the field, Atlanta would feel the impact.
A good barometer of superstardom is the answer to this question: How much does his absence change his offense’s/defense’s foundational approach to the game? With Jones, the answer is “almost completely.” Besides being the go-to guy, especially in crucial situations, Jones is who the passing game is built around. He often aligns on the weak side of a formation, where defenses can’t disguise their double-teams. Not only do those declared double-teams clarify Matt Ryan’s reads, they impact how Ryan and offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian approach a play. Since Jones is one of six receivers who gets doubled on almost every meaningful passing snap (the others are Odell Beckham Jr., Antonio Brown, Mike Evans, A.J. Green and DeAndre Hopkins), the Falcons can build plays with an assumption of what the defense will do. Some of those receivers who draw regular doubles do so because their offense lacks other weapons. Not Jones. Atlanta has good players around him, and those players are frequently positioned to be great because of the predictable one-on-one coverage Jones affords them.
We can debate who is the NFL’s best wide receiver. Brown is the most polished. Beckham, the most explosive. Hopkins, the most relentless. But privately around the league, Jones is the guy players and coaches talk about most. His package of size, strength, speed, quickness, hands and refinement is the most complete. Often, when coaches are teaching something to their wide receivers, they explain it in terms of, “This is how Julio does it.”
Falcons coaches have the luxury of instead just pointing and saying, “Watch Number 11.” It’s imperative the Falcons get back Number 11, but they’re not exactly swimming in money right now. They have $9.86 million in cap space and just tied up $100 million guaranteed in Ryan’s five-year deal. Of course, Ryan’s value is diminished if you remove his top target, so Jones has put general manager Thomas Dimitroff in a tough spot. But that’s the job. In 2011, Dimitroff traded two first-rounders, a second-rounder and two fourth-rounders to Cleveland to move up and secure Jones with the sixth pick. Now he must secure Jones again, this time with a new market-setting mega contract.
“Most talented” doesn’t mean “best.” So, Jerry Rice fans, no need to grab a pitchfork. In history, who has a richer, more diverse set of raw attributes than Jones? Rice put everything together, but broken down individually, few of his attributes were dazzling. Terrell Owens had size and speed, but he wasn’t as quick, sure-handed or refined as Jones. Randy Moss was an unmatched vertical weapon but not in Jones’s class as an underneath or intermediate receiver. As a pure physical specimen, the only contender is probably Calvin Johnson. And my guess is most quarterbacks and coaches would tell you Jones is the more reliable of those two.
Bring Bump-and-Run Back to Minicamps
The Ravens have said this is because some of their young pass defenders have struggled to adjust to the no-contact coverage rules. We think of “no contact” as no tackling, blocking or aggressive pass rushing. But it also means no bump-and-run coverage. Coaches hate this part most of all. The difference for a receiver practicing with a free release off the line versus against a cornerback’s jam is like the difference between learning to drive on an abandoned country road versus in downtown Chicago. Young receivers who look great in OTAs suddenly struggle in training camp, and especially in live games, because they haven’t practiced against NFL press coverage. How you combat that press coverage impacts the timing of your pass plays. The whole point of practicing is to get that timing down. Here’s hoping that in the next CBA, the league doesn’t just regain the quantity of practice time it lost in the 2011 CBA, but also the quality.
Falcons Planning on More Two-RB Looks
The guess here is they’ll do this 8 to 10 times a game, but they should do it 15 to 20. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are elite ballcarriers and top-tier receiving backs, capable of catching passes from the backfield, slot or out wide. And with a veteran QB who can make calls at the line of scrimmage in Matt Ryan, the Falcons can shift into any formation at any time, run or pass. Imagine the nightmare that presents for a defense, which must go into full reactionary mode against this. Ryan would get predictable looks almost every snap, with linebackers forced to cover in space or defensive backs forced to play the run in traffic.
Titans and THEIR Two running backs
New offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur called tailbacks Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis 1A and 1B. It will be interesting to see how often LaFleur plays them together. Henry is strictly a ballcarrier and needs the scheme and blocking to define his lanes. Lewis, less powerful but shiftier, has the ability to create his own space. More notably, we forget that prior to James White’s emergence in New England, Lewis was a multidimensional receiving weapon. Henry’s one-dimensionality will leave LaFleur with fewer options than Atlanta in the two-RB passing game, but it’s still an opportunity to dictate matchup problems to the defense. LaFleur must be creative here because Tennessee does not have enough speed and depth at wide receiver to sustain offense out of three-receiver sets.
Non-football thought of the week
You know how when someone asks how you’re doing, you say “I’m doing well, thanks. How are you?” And they say, “I’m doing great”? How often do you think the person said they’re doing great as a form of one-upmanship? With all the day-to-day disingenuity we encounter (and, let’s be honest, that we deliver ourselves), what percent of the time are these exchanges not actually pleasantries but veiled battles? My guess is 20% if you’re just counting conscious behavior, 35% if you’re including subconscious behavior.
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