WHO: Atlanta Falcons
WHERE: Flowery Branch, Ga.
WHEN: Friday, July 27
HOW: 5.5-hour drive from Jacksonville
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — A little after 10 a.m. on Friday, Arthur Blank drove his golf cart to the edge of one of the Falcons’ practice fields, parking near where a group of offensive players was gathered. Matt Ryan came over first, embracing the team owner, who awarded the quarterback with a five-year, $150 million contract extension in May. Next came Julio Jones. The All-Pro receiver ducked his 6-foot-3 frame under the cart’s canopy, and lingered for a minute, shooting the breeze with the man who will now also be writing him a bigger check.
This was the outcome everyone had been hoping for, even as Jones skipped the team’s voluntary offseason program and mandatory June mini-camp. He seemed headed for a contract holdout, but after walking off the field from the first practice of training camp on Friday, insisted he was always planning to be here when camp started. “I was already going to come here,” Jones said. “They took care of it. We knew all along we were going to get it handled.”
Handling it entailed what the team called making an “adjustment” to Jones’s current contract, which runs through 2020, the night before players were scheduled to report for camp. ESPN reported that Jones will now earn $13.4 million in 2018, an increase from $10.5 million, a holdover until the team begins negotiations for an extension next year. Both Jones and head coach Dan Quinn were been sweating on Friday morning, during the two-hour practice in the 80-degree Georgia heat, but they swear they really weren’t sweating the past few months. Knowing that these situations can get “awkward,” Quinn says he made a point to keep an open dialogue with one of his most important players.
“Sometimes having the uncomfortable conversations when you are in a relationship, any relationship, are good,” Quinn says. “Alright, let’s talk about it. And usually, it’s not that bad. So I said (to him), sometimes football and business intersect, and it’s OK when that happens. I told the same thing to Matt when he was going through his, because he was feeling weird, too. When that happens, let’s make sure we stick to communicating.”
Quinn didn’t want to be embroiled in contract talks, which he told both Jones and GM Thomas Dimitroff. “I don’t want to cross that space, knowing, OK, you make this and that and I helped negotiate something,” Quinn says. “Most of the time, we talked about what we normally do, and I didn’t try to make him feel weird.” But, he says he made a one-time exception with one player’s contract situation this offseason. He wouldn’t disclose whether it was Ryan or Jones, but, Quinn did reach out to one of his two offensive leaders to ask, how can I help? “I’m not going to say which one, but I did do that to say, ‘What’s the thing that’s keeping you up at night?’ ” Quinn says. “I’m not saying that helped, but with one, I did do that.”
The Falcons have been busy this year taking care of their core players. On Friday, about an hour into their first camp practice, they agreed to a five-year, $75 million extension with left tackle Jake Matthews. When the team made the announcement, Matthews was on the field, participating in a far-from-glamorous blocking drill. Next up are young defensive cornerstones like Grady Jarrett, Ricardo Allen and Vic Beasley—but paying good young players the team has developed is a good problem to have. “I’d hate to have 80 million in cap space; then I’d know we really screwed some stuff up,” Quinn says. “I’m hopeful we are scraping it together to try to help anther guy.”
Contract extension talks still loom for Jones in 2019, but now, the focus is on this season. Jones missed time in camp last year after offseason foot surgery, but this year, he says he used his time away from the team to focus on getting his body fully healthy. During a break in practice, Jones was demonstrating what looked to be a route stem for two rookie receivers; later, when he caught a pass in 11-on-11 drills, the fans dotting the hill overlooking the practice field erupted in cheers.
There was still one lingering question: If he hadn’t gotten the contract adjustment, one beat reporter asked at his post-practice press conference, would he still have been here? Jones wiped sweat from his eye and said simply, “I’m here.”
“OH, I DIDN’T KNOW THAT": The Falcons refer to the ball as “everything.” In team meetings, Quinn will hold up a ball, ask what it is, and the players will reply, “Everything!” “BALL” is one of three organizational tenets plastered on the walls on the first floor of team headquarters, around the corner from the team meeting rooms. “Nothing is more important than the football,” the caption reads. “It is everything and the responsibility of all of us.” And there’s more: Every few feet there’s a football on a spring, sticking out of the wall or off of a metal stand. Players have to touch the ball every time they walk past. Ah, mind games.
STORYLINE TO WATCH: First-round pick Calvin Ridley is already modeling himself after one of the best receivers in the game. He and Jones worked out together this spring at their alma mater, Alabama, and at Ryan’s offseason passing camp in California, Jones started schooling Ridley in nuances like route adjustments. Along with Mohamed Sanu, Sr., the Falcons have one of the best receiving corps in the NFL.
TOP POSITION BATTLE: Lots of options for kick and punt returner. Receivers Marvin Hall and Justin Hardy took reps returning punts on the first day of camp, but several other players, including Ridley, will take a turn. Special teams might not sound like the most exciting position battle, but particularly with the new kickoff rules this is an important spot—there could be more opportunities for wide-open returns this season.
OFFBEAT OBSERVATION: Among the snacks the Falcons offer their players: Not just regular yogurt-covered raisins, probiotic yogurt-covered raisins. There was a full dispenser right across from the tight ends room. Gotta take care of the whole player, including his gut bacteria.
PARTING THOUGHTS: On Saturday, Quinn planned to talk to his team about the specifics of the new catch rule. He had a video reel ready with examples of non-catches last season that would be catches under the new rule. We’ll have a little more on that later, but Quinn expects there will be more catches and more fumbles.