A matter of wounded pride: Julio Jones versus the Falcons

Falcons' Julio Jones reacts to a play during the first half against the Carolina Panthers at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Dec. 31, 2017, in Atlanta.

Credit: Scott Cunningham

Credit: Scott Cunningham

Falcons' Julio Jones reacts to a play during the first half against the Carolina Panthers at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Dec. 31, 2017, in Atlanta.

Pride is at the heart of this. Among humans, it often is. The NFL’s best receiver awakes one morning to find he’s the NFL’s seventh-highest-paid receiver, this on a team that just made its quarterback the league’s highest-paid player and last year minted the highest-paid running back. (Never mind that this same receiver was, as of 2016, the highest-paid at his position.)

Julio Jones, who wears No. 11, surely sniffed and said, “I’m a darn sight better than No. 7.” Which he is. Which isn’t, however, the point.

The point is that the Falcons had budgeted for Matt Ryan’s $150 million over five years and for Devonta Freeman’s $41.25 million over four. They hadn’t budgeted for a Julio bump, seeing as how they handed him $71.25 million over five seasons. But spreadsheets are cold comfort when pride has been tweaked. Julio’s clearly has.

He removed team logos from his social-media accounts. He didn’t show for OTAs, which are optional. He didn’t show for minicamp, which isn’t. He made an appearance at Ryan’s unofficial passing camp, doubtless to show his mates the withholding of his presence in Flowery Branch is nothing personal. Unknown is whether he’ll report to camp when it opens Thursday. Could pride come before Dan Quinn’s ballyhooed Brotherhood?

It was reported this week by The Athletic that the Falcons will not renegotiate Jones’ contract, which hasn’t yet entered the third of its five seasons. That pointed message would make it tough for even the most pragmatic soul to whistle while at work. The belief remains that the Falcons will seek to do something short of total renegotiation to placate the great wideout. Still, there’s a limit as to what’s do-able.

With their oft-bandied bromides – Georgia’s Kirby Smart parroted, “Iron sharpens iron” at SEC Media Days – and their inherent smugness, the Falcons can be an easy target. But they’re not in the wrong here. They work under a hard salary cap. They cannot throw more money at No. 11 without taking some from half a dozen defenders whose rookie contracts need extending/embellishing, and those defenders are as much a part of the Good Ship Blank as Julio Jones.

If the Falcons are right, doesn’t that mean Jones is wrong? Technically, yes. He did sign the contract. But he and Jimmy Sexton, who dabbles in the NFL when he’s not running college football, couldn’t have anticipated that the Browns would hand $75.5 million to Jarvis Landry or, as just happened, the Rams would re-up Brandin Cooks for $80 million. The trade-off in any contract is long-term security at the risk of missing a market spike.

We've mentioned this before, but here it is again: The only prudent way for the Falcons to make Jones happier, if not fully happy, is in incentives – and even these would affect their financial planning. If you grant an easy incentive, it falls under the heading of "likely to be earned" and counts against this year's cap; if you give a higher target – four times as many touchdowns as last year, say – it's considered "not likely to be earned" and doesn't count against this year's cap. If it is earned, it counts against next year's.

If they agree to give Jones $100,000 – incentives are usually in the thousands, not the millions – for catching 12 touchdown passes (up from last year’s three) and he hits the number, that’s good for him and doubtless good for the on-field product. It’s also $100,000 they couldn’t give Grady Jarrett next spring. And if you’re saying, “Hey, $100K doesn’t sound like much,” that could be Jones’ reaction if it’s all the Falcons are willing to do. If he won’t be satisfied with anything less than a redone contract and the team refuses to redo, where’s the common ground?

He could, at least in theory, walk away, but then he would earn nothing. He could demand a trade, but meaningful NFL swaps are rare. No team ever gets full value for a big-time player. (The Vikings netted a Round 3 and a Round 7 pick for Randy Moss.) How many teams, even those in need of a difference-making receiver, could fit Jones under their 2018 cap at this late date? And why would a franchise about to play host to a Super Bowl trade the most gifted player off a playoff-caliber roster?

What happens next will hinge on Jones. Either he works through his pique and accepts what the Falcons are able to do for him, which won’t be all that much, or he stages a holdout, which will only inflame things, or he reports and renders himself a nuisance, which would be contrary to his history as a splendid teammate.

I understand why he’s upset, but he needs to understand that he has put the Falcons in a difficult place. They love him. They tried to do right by him, and they thought they had. Then he said, “Wait a minute.” And here we are.