MAQB: Why the Falcons Are Looking to Trade Julio Jones

From the cap situation to other players who've had deals restructured to what he has left in the tank, this is why a star is on the trading block. Plus, T.J. Hockenson's potential, Jaylen Waddle's speed, Dak Prescott's rehab and more.
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Let’s dive right into what’s been the story of the day

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• In the Monday morning column, we addressed Julio Jones’s trade status, and the biggest question that seems to be arising from it is, simply, Why? Why would new Falcons coach Arthur Smith and GM Terry Fontenot trade one of the best players in franchise history? I think there are three answers to that. First, the money. Atlanta’s salary cap is a mess, and promises to be a problem again in 2022, and that’s why the Falcons’ new brass had to look at options to dump cap money—and the best way to do it is to do it while getting something in return. Really, there are five massive contracts on the team’s books: Matt Ryan’s, Jake Matthews’s, Deion Jones’s, Grady Jarrett’s, and Julio’s. The team made other teams aware early in the offseason that it would listen on anyone. After letting that outgoing offer simmer, they redid three of the aforementioned deals (Ryan, Deion Jones, Matthews), essentially locking those guys in. That leaves Julio and Jarrett as the two tradeable veteran pieces, with Jarrett due $43.5 million the next three years and Julio due $38.3 million the next three years. The second piece to this is that Julio himself wants. And it’s been an open secret for a while now that he’s had his eyes on the exit, which naturally makes him a better trade candidate for Smith and Fontenot than someone who’s all-in on their new program. Jones, through his agent, approached the team about a trade in March, and that’s when the Falcons started fielding interest from other teams. Third, there’s what Julio actually has left …

• The piece relating to what Jones has left in the tank is fascinating, because that’s very much a moving target, and goes directly to his health. Jones suffered a Jones fracture preparing for the 2011 combine—a foot injury that he’s needed to manage, really, for the duration of his 10-year career. He’s also had knee issues. And the totality of it led to astute defensive coaches picking up on routes he could and couldn’t run when those problems were bothering him. With the foot, he’d have trouble on in-breaking routes. With the knee, he’d have trouble cutting off it. In both cases, patterns emerged where the Falcons were working scheme-wise around those injuries, moving Jones around a lot and not putting him in disadvantageous spots. So if you’re a team trading for him, it’s definitely not been an all-the-time thing, but you’d have the prospect of dealing with that. And then, there’s how all that might affect Jones’s ability to practice, an issue that could become bigger going to a new team where he has to learn a new system and mesh with a new quarterback. Now, all of that said: When healthy, in flashes, he’s still looked like the same guy and has the straight-line speed to threaten down the field. “I think he’s still Julio in the sense that can change a game, whether it’s with his actual ability, or his perceived ability,” said one pro scouting director. “People still have to pay attention to him. But the last couple years, when he’s not healthy, you’re limited with what he can do within the offense, since there are certain routes he can’t run. That limits where they line him up, and some coordinators are smart enough to figure out what he can and can’t run.” Add his age into the equation, and while it’s easy to see where Jones is still really enticing as a player, it’s just as simple figuring why other teams would move with trepidation on this one, especially when looking at what he might be down the line.

• One comp I thought of here was Larry Fitzgerald, who’s pulled a very impressive trick over the last half-decade, basically turning himself from a crafty, dominant (if slow-ish) inside/outside receiver into a very productive big slot through his 30s. It seemed to me that, maybe, that’s where Jones will wind up going, if he wants to keep playing into his mid-30s. And I’m sure there’s a lot he could pick up from Fitzgerald in that regard. But a couple people emphasized to me that it’s not the same. Fitzgerald wasn’t particularly fast in his prime, and is slower now, while Jones, for detailed above, still has plenty of straight-line speed. He’s also always been a worker, which would lead you to believe even if some of that leaves him, he’ll have the capacity to adjust.

• As for what the Falcons are doing to replace Jones in the offense, here’s what Ryan told me he’s taken away from working with Kyle Pitts (who’s not a receiver, like Jones is, but could bring the sort of matchup issues to the offense that Jones has): “I think just more so than anything, the attention to detail. That’s gonna be the difference. The good players I’ve been around in my career are focused on the details. And he has that kind of mindset. If he stays in that kind of space, just daily improvement, getting a little better, soaking up every bit of knowledge he can, that’s gonna serve him best.” That’s good news for Atlanta, given all the tangible things Pitts brings to the table.

• It was interesting seeing Lions tight ends coach Ben Johnson say, on T.J. Hockenson, “There’s still a lot of meat left on the bone” as to his development, because I really think, looking at the landscape in Detroit, he’s poised for a big year. One, his new head coach, Dan Campbell, was an NFL tight end. Two, his offensive coordinator, Anthony Lynn, helped to bring Hunter Henry along and feature him in the Chargers offense the last couple years. Three, Johnson, his position coach, is a holdover from the last staff (he also worked with Campbell in Miami), which means there’s good institutional knowledge of what Hockenson can and can’t do there. And four, with Kenny Golladay gone, Hockenson is clearly the weapon at Jared Goff’s disposal with the highest ceiling. If he can stay healthy, I think a big year’s coming.

• No one should be surprised by Urban Meyer and the Jaguars having a predraft affinity for new Dolphins receiver Jaylen Waddle. One thing Meyer is absolutely bringing with him from Florida and Ohio State is his philosophy on speed being the great equalizer, and he’s not hiding that either. “My vision, my dream, is always to be the fastest team on the field,” he told the Jacksonville media earlier in the offseason. So Waddle fits in the same category for Meyer as Kadarius Toney and Travis Etienne. The difference in those three? He was never going to be in position to draft the first one, he thought he might be in position to take the second one and he did draft the third one.

• I think it’s at least interesting that a few of the coaches who’ve bent furthest in changing their offseason programs to accommodate their players played in the league themselves. Colts coach Frank Reich (Indy cut its Phase III down to one week, eliminated 11-on-11s) is one example. Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury (Arizona is only using three of its allotted OTA days) is another.

• Cowboys QB Dak Prescott told ESPN’s Sage Steele that he could play in a game right now, if there was one, and not have to think about his rehabilitated right leg. That’s good news, and for more reasons than meet the eye. Because of the injury, his work with Mike McCarthy’s been somewhat limited, so coach and quarterback will now get time to make up for that. And with Prescott on the field, and I’d expect the Cowboys will be judicious with him at this early juncture, second-year receiver CeeDee Lamb should be able to build up a better rapport with Prescott and position himself to take a big step forward. The Cowboys offense, if everyone’s healthy, could be pretty scary.

• News of the Bucs’ and Titans’ pursuing joint practices shows you how far ahead the league, its teams and all of us are from where we were last year. And I’d expect to see more of this as we return to normalcy, too, with plenty of coaches seeing joint practices as more productive than preseason games, and there also now being fewer preseason games.

• I wouldn’t make much of Aaron Rodgers’s no-show in Green Bay. Most of the vets aren’t there anyway, as we told you Monday morning, with the players and coaches not yet in agreement on what OTAs look like. And once Rodgers gets to the point where his $500,000 workout bonus is gone, you’d assume chances lessen that the $95,877 in fines he’d incur for missing the team’s mandatory minicamp will matter to him. As we’ve said for a while, the rubber hits the road on that situation with training camp.

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