Falcons take less risk in big payday for Julio Jones than Saints with Michael Thomas

The Saints signed wide receiver Michael Thomas to a contract through 2024 that includes $61 million guaranteed. That seemingly doesn’t match the timeline for Drew Brees, their 40-year-old quarterback. But whatever Brees has left in the tank wouldn’t matter so much without Thomas, which is why he had so much leverage during his holdout.

So, the Saints gave Thomas a record contract. Now the Falcons are set to break it with a new deal for Julio Jones. He’s four years older (30) than Thomas but the more accomplished wide receiver.

“We believe that he should be the . . . highest-paid receiver in the league,” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said on NFL Network. “And I know he believes that. It's just how we're going to approach this and how we're going to get it done."

There are lots of ways to define “highest-paid” in the NFL, where much of the money owed to players is hypothetical. Does it mean upfront money? Does it mean highest-paid this season? Is it the average annual salary including future, non-guaranteed money?

One way or another, the Falcons are going to pay Jones more money than the Saints paid Thomas. The Falcons will be taking less risk because there is more certainty that their quarterback, 34-year-old Matt Ryan, has multiple prime years left.

With Brees and Thomas, the Saints are hoping their wide receiver continues his ascension and their QB still can defy time. With Ryan and Jones, the Falcons reasonably can expect their wide receiver and QB to be great for more seasons beyond this one.

In advocating for Jones to get more money than Thomas, ESPN analyst DeAngelo Williams said: “Drew Brees is good enough to win games on his own without Michael Thomas. I’m not so sure that ‘Matty Ice’ is good enough to win without Julio Jones.”

That’s silly, and not just because hardly any QB can carry a team far without a great wide receiver (Tom Brady and Peyton Manning come immediately to mind). It’s also that Brees’ late-career resurgence coincided with Thomas’ emergence into an elite receiver. Williams might have the cause and effect backward.

From 2014-16, Brees put up big numbers on non-playoff teams (though his famous accuracy faltered). The top two Saints pass catchers in 2014 were Kenny Stills and Marques Colston. In 2015 it was Cooks and Willie Snead. The year after that it was Cooks and rookie Thomas.

Brees couldn’t do better than 7-9 with those guys. Then Thomas emerged as a Pro Bowl receiver in 2017, and suddenly Brees looked like his old (younger) self. He had the best completion percentage and yards per attempt in the NFL that season. The Saints won 11 games and made it to the divisional round at Minnesota.

In that game, Brees had two first-half interceptions as the Saints fell behind 17-0. They got within three points on a pair of Brees touchdown passes to Thomas. The Saints lost, but in Thomas they had a great receiver who rarely drops passes.

Thomas was even better in 2018, when was voted All-Pro. Brees was great, too. But beginning with a victory over the Falcons on Nov. 22, Brees had a stretch of four games in which he didn’t crack 203 yards passing and totaled six touchdowns and four picks.

Brees took the Saints made to the NFC Championship game against the Rams. Everybody knows the Saints got jobbed by a no-call pass interference while driving for a potential game-winning score. Less discussed is Bress’ overtime interception, when he should have just taken the sack on second down.

Here we note that in his past six playoff games Brees has 11 touchdowns against seven interceptions. He’s an all-time great quarterback but there are signs of slippage. Thomas can help mitigate that, which is why the Saints paid up.

The Falcons will pay Jones, too, but not because Ryan might be in decline. He was MVP in 2016 and had similar production in 2018 even though Ryan lacked what Brees had: a good offensive line, a big-play running back and an above-average defense.

The Falcons are working on fixing that. If they do it, there’s a very good chance Ryan will take the Falcons back to the playoffs soon. That won’t happen without Jones, who has delivered what Pro Football Focus calls “unparalleled production in the NFL since 2014.”

There’s no reason to think that won’t continue for at least two more seasons. Jones could regress and still be a top-five receiver. Notes PFF: “Since he entered the league in 2011, Jones ranks second in receptions (698), second in receiving yards (10,731), third in receiving yards after the catch (3747), second in first down receptions (495) and first in explosive plays (302) among receivers.”

Jones is a better wide receiver than Thomas. Ryan has more good years left than Brees. Those are the reasons why the Falcons can pay Jones more than the Saints paid Thomas and feel confident they’ll get a better return on their investment.