Whether Julio Jones knew he was on national television on Monday, when he was called to trash-talk the franchise he admitted he’s no longer going to play for live on a television show we’re not going to name, the not-so-secret secret has reached a point of inevitability.
The uncomfortable reality is that Jones would like to leave and the Falcons would like to trade him because of this. However, there clearly hasn’t been a single offer to slide across their desk that’s blown them away, as CBS reported Monday afternoon, hence an escalation of this rock-and-a-hard-place shouting match. The level to which this deal has been orchestrated through the press has been stunning, even by NFL standards, even before Monday’s phone-a-friend. We essentially know the terms of the deal and the range of teams that Atlanta would be willing to consider. Still, we hear crickets.
Just a hunch, but the Falcons might be smarter to wait, anyway. Soft tissue injuries during training camp can plague even the best-prepared teams and can target wide receivers used to cutting, stopping and sprinting with more regularity. Jones, for a team in contention that may end up losing its top pass-catching target, could very suddenly be worth every bit of that first-round pick Atlanta reportedly sought initially.
No matter what, a deal will have to wait until after June 1 (the terms could be agreed to but it could be formally executed afterward) in order to alleviate Atlanta’s salary-cap burden. While we wait for the formality to play out, here’s a look at where Jones might fit.
The Patriots’ offseason splurge was an obvious nod to their deficiencies. Signing Jonnu Smith, Hunter Henry, Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne was a fine start, but trading for Jones would elevate the room in a way that was impossible for the Patriots to do with their other free-agent acquisitions. The veteran wideout is still a sweeping presence on the field, a generous target and a player whose physicality is unmatched among elite receivers in that age group. The signing would be a gift for Mac Jones or another weapon for Cam Newton. The Patriots still have the cap space to pull it off and their behavior of late would show little willingness to instead covet the draft capital normally desired for future rebuilds. At one point, Bill Belichick advised Thomas Dimitroff, his former pupil, against trading for Jones. His opinion on the wideout (or at least the cost it took to get him) seems to have softened over time.
The fourth-most cap space in the NFL currently belongs to Denver, a team that has a playoff-ready defense and an offense that could be, might just be good enough to bring the roster to its fullest potential. Teddy Bridgewater, who, in theory, should win the starting job this offseason, is working with an ascending core of receivers that includes not-yet-tapped potential in Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy. Jones would represent an embarrassment of riches for this group and allow even the most milquetoast offense to threaten opponents with its combination of strength and speed. While the Broncos may want to save all their high-ish picks for a quarterback of the future in 2022 or for an entry into the Deshaun Watson or Aaron Rodgers sweepstakes, this would be an acceptable utilization of equity. While I think I may have previously overstated Denver’s “all-in” mentality for this year, I think the Broncos are certainly good enough to be in the playoff conversation and should behave accordingly. No matter how good Vic Fangio’s defense becomes this year, they will still need to outscore three talented offenses in the division twice a year.
Yes, the Ravens took Rashod Bateman in the first round of the draft. Yes, some receivers develop quickly. That said, Baltimore’s desire for multiple threats goes beyond one late first-round receiver. Bateman will develop into a fine professional, but Jones can immediately give the Ravens’ offense a dimension that has plagued them throughout the Lamar Jackson era. Baltimore needs a midrange, outside-the-hash presence. Baltimore does a tremendous job by design at putting teams in their base defenses, but Jones can take that from a moderate advantage to a place of punishment. Baltimore already sees more unique defensive looks than any team in the NFL, and Jones would further scramble matchups that already have defensive coordinators around the league struggling.
The Titans are quite low in the salary-cap department and are, admittedly, not a financial fit here. They are, however, a team that is well aware of what it lost this offseason. Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith were cornerstones of an offense that asked a lot of players to do the little things well. A.J. Brown shined statistically, but Davis and Smith were integral in their hidden roles making it all happen. While Jones may not be the No. 1 wideout who thrived in an offense run by Kyle Shanahan (and, by the way, there’s a tidy circle here where Shanahan’s pupil in Atlanta, Matt LaFleur, installed a system in Tennessee that was later run by Arthur Smith, who now goes back to Atlanta) he could jump in as Brown’s running mate and devour coverages that are already in constant conflict trying to stop both Brown and Derrick Henry. Jones would not completely alleviate the target loss of Davis and Smith, but he’d arrive at a familiar place schematically and with a quarterback who can dutifully get him the ball.
While the Colts may be better off utilizing more 12-personnel now that Carson Wentz is on the roster (more protection allows for more time in the pocket, a better-designed scheme with midrange throws can help Wentz correct some of the bad habits he’s worked himself into due to the Eagles’ scattershot offense in 2020), Jones would fit nicely both from a financial perspective and, potentially, a schematic one. Frank Reich’s play designs force teams to present a decent amount of man coverage, which Jones can destroy with regularity. Only four teams faced more man coverage than the Colts last year.
The Raiders don’t have the cap space and have myriad needs elsewhere, but it’s difficult to see a talented veteran on the market and not have Jon Gruden’s tail start wagging. Historically, this has been his roster-building Achilles heel. Regardless of what he has, Gruden always seems to have his eyes elsewhere, and Jones would represent the kind of big-ticket player that would energize a team playing in a new stadium and an offense that is good but not good enough.
The Chargers are healthy from a cap perspective, but a bit of an unknown schematically. Chances are that Brandon Staley would prefer new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi to run a version of what he was accustomed to with the Rams, which means a conflict-focused game plan bent on isolating and destroying opponent weaknesses. Keenan Allen is a great player to have in that regard, but Jones would represent an upgrade at No. 2, and allow a team that lived in 11-personnel last year to be more flexible with Allen and Mike Williams.
This is a bit of a dart throw. The Packers are in Atlanta’s conference, which would make them a more unlikely trade destination. If I were Terry Fontenot, I’m probably also not dealing Jones to a team that I still believe will have Aaron Rodgers under center in 2021. The narrative, while untrue, would be that Atlanta shipped off a player for a second-round pick and he went on to score 12 touchdowns and average a career high in yards after the catch. Jones would fit beautifully in an outside zone offense like the one currently piloted by Nathaniel Hackett, who interviewed for a job in Atlanta last year and presumably had a pretty good plan on how to use him.
The 49ers’ offense prioritizes speed at their No. 1 receiver position, though physicality and complete range are good secondary traits to have. Jones thrived in this offense before and could do so again, though maybe in a slightly different role. Brandon Aiyuk could be the set-up man here, with Jones able to dot around the offense, materializing underneath deep clear outs or feasting on a defensive back lineup in the division that leaves much to be desired. While San Francisco isn’t necessarily a Super Bowl favorite, Trey Lance will transform a scheme that is already difficult to stop. Jones could be a valuable chess piece as Shanahan tries to pivot away from some of the more watered-down tenets of his scheme that have been widely borrowed and practiced against.
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