There is angst among some Falcons executives and fans because Julio Jones skipped voluntary “organized team activities” – Arts and crafts? Three-legged races? – and did not show up for a three-day minicamp, which took place more than six weeks before training camp and nine weeks before the first exhibition and 13 weeks before the season opener.
There is angst that one of the best conditioned, most dedicated, mature, intelligent and self-less players in franchise history, a player not only considered the best on the Falcons’ roster but one of the top 10 in the NFL, according to a player vote for the NFL Network -- Matt Ryan, the quarterback, came in at No. 29 -- wants a raise only two years into a five-year contract.
Truth is, he probably deserves it. (More on that shortly.)
I’ve covered several NFL negotiations. In some of my early beat-writing days in Los Angeles, it wasn’t uncommon for the Rams to have a training camp with holdouts/nasty contract negotiations involving a dozen players. I saw players like Eric Dickerson hold out valid reasons and others like Henry Ellard, a terrific wide receiver, get manipulated by disturbed agent, Mike Blatt (who told me Ellard would jump to Hawaii of the USFL, which was a remarkable threat considering Hawaii didn’t have a USFL franchise).
What’s going on now is Jones’ call -- not the steering of agent Jimmy Sexton, nor the influence of Terrell Owens, one of Jones’ new workout buddies in California, as some fear. In the end, I believe Jones will get an adjusted contract and he will report to training camp and then everybody can find a new reason to meltdown about on social media and sports-talk radio.
Here are some things you may not be aware of:
• The Falcons never expected for Jones to play to the end of his five-year, $71.256 million extension. They budgeted for a renegotiation. Problem is, they budgeted for it next offseason. They anticipated the focus this offseason would be new deals for Grady Jarrett and Jake Matthews. But Jones wants an adjustment now because he has received all the guaranteed money in the contract: $47 million. (Seldom reported: The full contract’s actual total cash value on paper was $81.442 million, including tweaks to his 2015 compensation.)
• NFL players often get branded as ungrateful or disloyal when they don’t “honor” a contract. Funny. Nobody talks about disloyalty when a team cuts a player with time left on a deal. NFL contracts aren’t like those in major league baseball or the NBA because they’re not fully guaranteed. The Falcons obviously aren’t going to cut Jones now before the season. But theoretically, they could cut him after the season, when he turns 30 years old. Jones is right to want some security. His next deal almost certainly will be his last.
• The Falcons will make an adjustment to Jones’ contract for 2018 and then likely give him a new deal after the year. I believe this based on the fact that owner Arthur Blank understands Jones’ value to the franchise and he told me last month, “You can just say work will be done,” on the deal. Speculation from former agent Joel Corry (now of CBS Sports) that the Falcons will give Jones incentives and shift base salary from 2019 to 2018 is logical.
• Falcons coach Dan Quinn is upset because he expected Jones in minicamp. He fears for cracks in the “Brotherhood.” I get that. But this damage is neither serious nor irreparable. Certain players have more cachet than others. It’s doubtful any teammate has a problem with Jones’ stance. As for concerns the Falcons are opening the door for others to renegotiate early, the Falcons have an easy rebuttal: “You’re not Julio.”
• The only time I suspected the Falcons could have an issue with a special rule for a player came in 2013. They went to the wall to talk Tony Gonzalez out of retirement. Gonzalez had stipulations for his return, including leaving training camp to spend time with his family. It wasn’t a business matter that all players could relate to. It was a case of a player prioritizing something or somebody over the team in training camp. Gonzalez was in shape and played well, but I’m convinced that had a ripple effect on a Falcons team that fell apart. Some in the organization privately second-guessed the team’s decision.
• Jones’ only public comment on this subject has come to TMZ, outside of a West Hollywood restaurant: “I'm not going anywhere. I love the team, I love the organization, I love everybody there. We're good.” When his verbiage begins to tilt negative, then it’s time to worry. Not yet.
Jones may have surprised the Falcons with his minicamp absence, but he’s not wrong to use this time to get his point across. Look around the NFL. He’s not alone. Because in the big picture, for as much as critics want everybody to be holding hands and singing Kumbaya in May and June, this time really doesn’t matter.
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