May 27, 2021
Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones — considered one of the best receiving talents in the NFL — is on the trade market. Right before the 2021 draft, Falcons GM Terry Fontenot said that the team would listen to trade offers on the 32-year-old veteran as Atlanta attempts to solve its current cap space issues. No deal has been brokered just yet, but a post-June 1 move is looking more and more likely. Jones said this week when asked if he was staying with the Falcons, “I’m outta there.”
It’s not often that an elite receiver becomes available, but the Falcons’ cap situation — per Over The Cap, they are one of three teams with less than $1 million in space and have plenty of players still to sign — has put them in this position. Jones has three years left on his deal and a fully guaranteed base salary of $15.3 million for 2021. He is scheduled to cost $23.05 million against the cap this year and $19.263 million in 2022 and 2023. With a reduced cap for this season, teams would have to do some maneuvering to land Jones and fit him under the cap. But there is certainly a market for him. There’s a chance he even gets Atlanta a first-round pick.
So who might be interested, and where could Jones land? What could the Falcons get in return? Our NFL Nation reporters served as their teams’ GMs and made realistic offers for Jones, and Falcons reporter Michael Rothstein picked one to accept. We requested that reporters make offers only if their teams would legitimately be in the mix for Jones, and cap space, WR depth, contending window and other factors all played a part. For teams that perhaps could have made an offer but didn’t, our reporters explained why they opted to pass.
Which team made the best offer and landed Jones in our simulated market for the talented receiver? Here’s how it played out.
NFL : Why is Jones on the market?
Jones and the Falcons are in this position for a multitude of reasons, very little of it having to do with Jones’ actual on-field play. COVID-19 consequences lowered the cap, and former Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff left the team in a massive cap conundrum, so the Falcons had to do some maneuvering with some top-end talent to just field a team with competitive players. Contracts for Matt Ryan, Jake Matthews and Deion Jones were restructured, and Dante Fowler Jr. and Tyeler Davison were asked to take pay cuts.
The Falcons still need to make room to sign their rookies and are left with two high-salary players to release, trade, restructure or extend: Jones and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett. The team could extend Jarrett, as he’s a cornerstone of the defense. At age 28, Jarrett should have multiple years of high-caliber play left. But barring that, the move is Jones. Fontenot is trying to clean up cap messes, not create new ones, so restructuring Jones seems less likely. Cutting him should not be an option, and neither is extending him, because he has three years left on his deal. And yes, it’s worth noting that Jones said this week that he isn’t expecting to return to Atlanta.
In Jones, a team would be getting a productive receiver who makes spectacular plays with regularity. Before last season, when he missed seven games, Jones had at least 1,394 yards and caught at least 83 passes in six straight seasons. Ryan said Jones had a significant impact on his career, and it’s easy to see why: He has been one of the game’s top receivers since the 2014 season as a seven-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro. — Michael Rothstein
NFL : Could Atlanta keep him?
If Atlanta decided to keep Jones, it could mean doing something with Jarrett’s contract, be it a restructure or an extension. A restructure of either player’s deal moves the can a year in terms of cap issues, but if an extension could get done between Jarrett and the Falcons — Jarrett said that’s the purview of his agent, Todd France — then Atlanta could theoretically keep Jones and try to make one more full run with that offensive core.
If the Falcons believe they are true conference title contenders, then maybe that’s the path. If there are real questions about what happens this season (and the defense is a large reason why), then moving on from Jones makes much more sense. So this leads us to the market for Jones. — Rothstein
NFL : Our offers for Jones
We asked our NFL Nation reporters to play GM and make realistic offers for Jones, mimicking what they believe their teams might actually do. Four offers came in. They are detailed here in alphabetical order.
NFL : Baltimore Ravens
Jamison Hensley’s offer: The Ravens would send the Falcons a 2022 second-rounder and the Chiefs’ 2022 fifth-rounder (acquired in Orlando Brown Jr. trade). The Falcons would pick up $4 million of Jones’ $15.3 million guaranteed salary in 2021.
Why make this offer? Jones would become the proven No. 1 wide receiver that Lamar Jackson has lacked in his first three NFL seasons. Baltimore’s wide receivers have ranked last in the NFL in catches and receiving yards in each of the past two seasons.
Rashod Bateman would line up on the outside opposite of Jones, and Marquise Brown would work out of the slot. Sammy Watkins, who received $5 million guaranteed this season, would have trouble getting on the field. This would be the most talented wide receiver group in Ravens history and create more balance for the most run-heavy offense in the league. Defenses would have to decide whether to stack the box against Jackson and running back J.K. Dobbins or double Jones.
Baltimore has very limited salary-cap space ($9.7 million) and would need to restructure a handful of players to create more room — which is something Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti has been against — in order to acquire Jones. And the Ravens are expected to give Jackson a big-money extension, which means they are going to rely more on the draft and less on free agency to build a team around him. The addition of Jones would require giving up some valuable draft picks, but his game-breaking ability would make a big impact. — Hensley
NFL : New England Patriots
Mike Reiss’ offer: The Patriots would send a 2022 second-rounder and QB Jarrett Stidham.
Why make this offer? Drafting and developing wide receivers has been a challenge for the Patriots under Bill Belichick, so the possibility of trading for a No. 1-caliber option is a unique opportunity. That’s especially true in a year the Patriots have tried to capitalize on a market inefficiency, having cap space while many teams do not.
Jones would slide in above Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne and Jakobi Meyers on the Patriots’ WR depth chart, and pairing that group with a revamped tight end room led by free-agent signings Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith would further transform the Patriots’ passing game. Defenses would have to think twice about crowding the middle of the field to take away the TEs, also having to respect Jones as a threat on the outside. Want to make life easier for rookie QB Mac Jones should the Patriots turn to him? Surround him with talent similar to what he had at Alabama.
A key part of the deal would be restructuring Jones’ contract, turning part of his $15.3 million base salary into a signing bonus and spreading out the cap hit into 2022 and 2023. Jones wins because he gets some upfront money, the Falcons can feel good about doing right for a franchise stalwart, and the Patriots can maintain some salary-cap flexibility in 2021. (New England currently has a little over $15 million in space.)
As for Stidham, who once had a path to the Patriots’ No. 1 spot before a dramatic turn, it would be a fresh start to learn behind Matt Ryan and see if he can realize his potential under Arthur Smith, who did wonders for Ryan Tannehill in Tennessee. — Reiss
NFL : San Francisco 49ers
Nick Wagoner’s offer: The 49ers would send a 2022 second-rounder and 2023 fourth-rounder.
Why make this offer? The 49ers have two exciting young wideouts in Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk, but that duo combined to play 19 games last season as injuries and COVID-19 issues kept them on the sideline. Adding Jones — who knows Kyle Shanahan and his offense well — would offer the opportunity to protect Samuel and Aiyuk while adding the big outside receiver the Niners lack. The move also puts Jones on a contender, which he expressed as a personal priority.
Jones would be an immediate starter as the X receiver and provide a needed deep threat, allowing Aiyuk to line up opposite him and Samuel to work from the slot. The Niners would boast the type of weapons whoever is playing quarterback would need to thrive.
Speaking of which, the simplest way for the Niners to make this deal work financially would involve moving quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. San Francisco needs to sign linebacker Fred Warner to a lucrative contract extension, and that is the first priority. But it would be far easier to fit Jones’ $15.3 million salary for 2021 in along with a Warner extension if they were to save $25 million by moving on from Garoppolo after June 1.
That would be the easiest move, but it would be tricky because the Niners would want to be sure that Trey Lance is ready to start before handing him the reins. There are, of course, other ways to fit Jones and a Warner extension in, so a Garoppolo trade or cut is not a prerequisite for a potential deal involving Jones. — Wagoner
NFL : Tennessee Titans
Turron Davenport’s offer: The Titans would send a 2022 third-rounder and LB Rashaan Evans.
Why make this offer? Adding Jones to an offense that already features Ryan Tannehill, A.J. Brown and Derrick Henry gives the Titans the firepower to win shootouts against the elite AFC contenders. Jones will keep opposing defenses from frequently stacking the box to stop Henry or employing double coverage on Brown. Tannehill gets a receiver who is well-equipped to make contested catches anywhere on the field.
Jones is capable of playing the X, the Z or in the slot, which adds to the options the Titans already have to create matchups when moving players across the formation. A trio that consists of Jones, Brown and Josh Reynolds looks pretty good on paper.
Tennessee will have to do some salary-cap gymnastics to clear up the rest of the necessary money to absorb Jones’ contract this season — the Titans have about $3.5 million in space at the moment — and the deal could have a future impact on contract negotiations for Brown and Reynolds. Brown’s rookie contract expires after the 2022 season, and Reynolds is on a one-year deal for 2021. Jones has $11.5 million in yearly cash in 2022 and 2023.
Moving Evans opens up around $2 million in cap space for the Titans. Having played under Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees in 2018 and 2019, Evans is more than capable of hitting the ground running in Atlanta. Evans becomes an instant starter next to Deion Jones at linebacker for the Falcons. — Davenport
NFL : The verdict: The Falcons accept the 49ers’ offer
Why this deal? This was tough. While I anticipated a little bit more of a market for Jones, particularly with the Chargers and Colts, there are just four deals on the table. One stuck out as making a good deal of sense for Atlanta: The Niners’ offer of a 2022 second-rounder and 2023 fourth-rounder. A quick run through the other three offers:
Part of this is to create cap room, so the Ravens asking Atlanta to eat salary was a non-starter — unless, perhaps, the draft compensation were higher.
Jarrett Stidham doesn’t solve the future quarterback issue for the Falcons, so the Patriots’ deal is out.
The Titans’ offer is really intriguing, and I almost considered taking it. Evans had his best NFL season under Pees in 2019 (111 tackles, nine tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks), and he’d essentially be another one-year contract since Tennessee didn’t pick up his option.
The San Francisco deal was the simplest but also made the most sense. The Falcons acquire two picks that can help reshape the roster or offer Fontenot draft capital to maneuver the next two years. It gave, to me, the best return of the offers put out there. That said, this was not an easy decision, and I’d only take this deal if I felt something couldn’t get done quick with Jarrett to open up the necessary cap space. So in a close call, I’d take San Francisco’s offer. — Rothstein
What happens now for the 49ers: After signing their draft class, the 49ers will have roughly $11 million in salary-cap space, which is not enough to take on Jones’ contract, extend Warner and leave wiggle room for potential in-season needs.
As mentioned, the easiest way to create the needed space would be to do something with Garoppolo’s contract. Ideally, they could trade him for a Day 2 pick that could be used as part of a trade for Jones. That seems unlikely given the lack of teams that have the need and motivation to take on his contract right now. They could restructure Garoppolo’s deal, but that would only make the hit more painful when they do eventually move on from him.
Is there a route to landing Jones that includes keeping Garoppolo at his current price? Yes, but it would take a lot of work. A contract extension that lowers guard Laken Tomlinson‘s 2021 cap number or possible restructuring of deals for players such as defensive end Arik Armstead and safety Jimmie Ward would be possible mechanisms to make it work. Or perhaps the 49ers do a simple restructure with Jones, a deal that would increase his modest cost in 2022 and 2023 but make it more palatable to fit him in 2021. Any of those would allow the Niners to sign Warner to a big extension, but it would probably mean backloading it and mostly leaving his 2021 cap number untouched. — Wagoner
What happens now for the Falcons: Atlanta can sign its rookies, including No. 4 overall pick Kyle Pitts. It also means a shift offensively, but that was coming anyway, going from Dirk Koetter to Arthur Smith. Calvin Ridley would become the clear No. 1 option and an even better candidate for a long-term extension. More will get asked of Pitts as a rookie, and Russell Gage would take on a more prominent offensive role. It would take a while for everyone to adjust to Jones’ departure, most notably Ryan, but the Falcons have enough options to be OK even without Jones on the team. — Rothstein
NFL : Why 13 teams that might have made sense decided to pass
Here’s a quick look at why some teams that could potentially fit Jones into their financial plans, have a need at wide receiver, or both did not make an offer for Jones in this exercise. Teams are listed in alphabetical order.
Chicago Bears: The Bears are simply strapped for cash and cannot afford Jones. Chicago was so up against the cap that it recently had to release starting left tackle Charles Leno to free up $9 million. Wide receiver Allen Robinson II playing under the one-year franchise tag doesn’t help matters. — Jeff Dickerson
Denver Broncos: The Broncos always seem to be in any discussion about potential landing spots for veteran players who want to be traded. But Courtland Sutton is on track to return from a knee injury and resume No. 1 duties, and the teams wants to get younger receivers it thinks are ready for big roles — Jerry Jeudy, KJ Hamler and Tim Patrick — on the field more. Sutton, Jeudy, Hamler and Patrick are set to earn roughly $7 million less combined than Jones’ $15.3 million guarantee in 2021 alone. — Jeff Legwold
Detroit Lions: For Lions fans, it would be a match made in heaven. Detroit certainly needs help at the position, could afford it and wants a star to draw attendance. Plus, he would be a culture fit. But it is unlikely to happen because the Lions are in the midst of a complete rebuild, and trading away valuable assets and draft capital to land an aging receiver doesn’t make sense with the direction they’re headed under the new regime. — Eric J. Woodyard
Green Bay Packers: The Packers’ long history of giving up high draft picks to trade for receivers and spending big money in free agency to acquire such help makes one wonder why they wouldn’t pursue Jones. Oh wait, sorry. Wrong team. But didn’t you hear: The Packers haven’t given Aaron Rodgers enough weapons. Oh wait, sorry. They had the No. 1 offense last year. Anyone who knows anything about how the Packers operate would know they’d never make such a move. — Rob Demovsky
Houston Texans: This isn’t a move that would make sense for general manager Nick Caserio. The Texans have so many holes on their 2021 roster — they’re not even certain who their starting quarterback will be — and they’re definitely not a Julio Jones away from being a playoff team. — Sarah Barshop
Indianapolis Colts: This would be the perfect scenario for the Colts … if Jones were three or four years younger. It’d give Carson Wentz one of the top receivers in the NFL amid a receiving group that already features T.Y. Hilton, Michael Pittman Jr. and Parris Campbell. But Jones is 32 years old, coming off a 2020 season in which he only played nine games and carries a hefty contract for three more years. The Colts, for as smart as they’ve been financially in recent years, still have to hand out substantial contract extensions to offensive linemen Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith and linebacker Darius Leonard. — Mike Wells
Jacksonville Jaguars: The Jaguars added Marvin Jones Jr. and Phillip Dorsett II in free agency, and they drafted Travis Etienne in the first round, planning to use him in multiple spots, including receiver. DJ Chark Jr. and Laviska Shenault Jr. return, so the Jags are in good shape in terms of targets for Trevor Lawrence. Why use draft capital — even with all the cap space at hand — to add a 32-year-old receiver to a team that is realistically at least two years away from being a serious contender? — Mike DiRocco
Las Vegas Raiders: Cap space, cap space and cap space. The Raiders have roughly $6 million in cap space and still have to sign a majority of their draft class. Plus, while Jones would be an upgrade over anyone in its receiver room, Las Vegas is committed to Henry Ruggs III taking the next step. He is next to untouchable, and you figure the Falcons would want him in a trade. — Paul Gutierrez
Los Angeles Chargers: No sense in upsetting the apple cart with another receiver. The Chargers are set with Keenan Allen, Mike Williams and Jalen Guyton at receiver, and running back Austin Ekeler catches a lot of balls. This unit works well together. — Shelley Smith
New Orleans Saints: You can’t rule out the Saints completely, since they have a need at WR and are never shy about pursuing star players despite salary-cap restraints. But they are even more slammed up against the cap than usual this year, and it’s hard to imagine Atlanta dealing Jones to its most-heated rival. — Mike Triplett
New York Jets: The Jets have made three long-term investments at wide receiver over the past 13 months: Corey Davis (2021 free agent), Elijah Moore (2021 second-round pick) and Denzel Mims (2020 second-round pick). While Jones would immediately become their WR1, he’d be viewed as a short-term answer for a team that is thinking beyond 2021. — Rich Cimini
Philadelphia Eagles: The Eagles are tight against the cap (about $4 million in space) and just selected DeVonta Smith in the first round. The smart play for them would be allowing Smith and their 2020 first-round pick, Jalen Reagor, to develop and add a veteran receiver next season if necessary when they’re ready to contend. — Tim McManus
Washington Football Team: It wouldn’t make sense for Washington for a couple of reasons. Jones is 32 and would not make the team an instant Super Bowl contender. Washington would be giving up draft capital and salary-cap space for a player that still leaves it short of what it’s trying to build, while limiting future moves. Washington needs to save assets for a possible quarterback chase next offseason and wants the cap room to extend its young players — including current No. 1 receiver Terry McLaurin. — John Keim