Julio Jones days as ‘Falcon for life’ appear numbered

The Falcons are in a tight salary-cap situation because they drafted poorly, spent unwisely in free agency and there was a seismic shift downward in revenue because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Now, they are considering trading seven-time Pro Bowl and two-time All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones, who was called “a Falcon for life” by owner Arthur Blank on several occasions, to create salary-cap space to help sign their 2021 rookie draft class.

But trading Jones, the franchise’s all-time leading receiver, is not the team’s only option.

“They don’t have to trade Julio,” a person with knowledge of the Falcons’ contracts told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Thursday. “There are several different ways you can do things. You could re-work Julio to create the room they need to sign their draft picks without any problems. But then the negative of that is that you continue to push money forward in out-years.”

There’s another fix by which the Falcons could retain Jones, who has three years left on his contract.

“One of the easy fixes, potentially, would be to extend or re-work (defensive lineman) Grady (Jarrett),” the person said. “You can create the room you need by doing that. If they think he’s a pillar, or a foundation piece, they could extend him. Guarantee him some more money and reduce his number this year. So, there are two ways without a whole lot of work (where) you could keep him.”

Also, it was pointed out by the person and by NFL sports business analyst Joel Corry that the Falcons could automatically convert parts of Jones’ and Jarrett’s salaries into bonuses and create the room needed for the rookies.

“You can get there by converting both Julio and Grady,” said Corry, a former agent and host of “Inside the Cap” podcast. “But if you’re going to trade Julio next year, then you’ve just made matters worse for yourself.”

So, if the Falcons part ways with Jones, it would be because they wanted to move on from the dynamic wide receiver, who turned 32 in February and is coming off a season when he played in nine games, but missed most of two of those games. Also, Jones’ practice regiment must be closely monitored to reduce his risk of injury.

The new coaching staff was stunned by how much practice time Jones missed last season while battling a season-long hamstring injury.

Jones signed a three-year contract extension Sept. 7, 2019. The deal had a cash value of $87,026,000 and included a signing bonus of $25 million and a roster bonus of $11 million, according to NFLPA documents. A total of $66 million was guaranteed.

Jones’ cap number for 2021 is $15.3 million, and it’s $19.263 in 2022 and 2023.

The Falcons have made moves over the offseason to create salary-cap space by restructuring the contracts of Jake Matthews, Matt Ryan and Deion Jones and releasing Ricardo Allen, James Carpenter and Allen Bailey. The also elected not to re-sign safeties Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee and had outside linebacker Dante Fowler and defensive tackle Tyeler Davison agree to pay cuts.

“What they did was make all of those moves to create room, but they also spent money on the kick returner (Cordarrelle Patterson) and the running back (Mike Davis) and everything else,” the person said. “If they didn’t sign those two guys, they’d have money for the draft picks. Now, they have to create room to be able to sign the draft picks. Which is no big deal. … There’s always ways to create room.”

If the Falcons trade Jones after June 1, they will create $15.3 million in salary-cap space.

“The problem you have is that you have about $600,000 of cap space, and the rookie class is going to take up about $13 million,” Corry said. “So, something has got to give.”

The Falcons’ trade partners are not limitless. There are only 10 teams that could take on Jones’ contract: the Jaguars, Jets, Bengals, Broncos, Browns, Colts, Chargers, Lions, 49ers and Patriots.

“The money left on the contract isn’t that much,” Corry said. “They front-loaded that thing, so he’s got about $38.3 million left over three years. He’s very affordable from a cash standpoint.”

The Bengals drafted former LSU wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase fifth overall this year, and the Browns have Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry. The Colts are not a good fit.

“The Colts do and don’t have cap room because it’s earmarked for other things,” Corry said. “They’ve got two guys they want to extend, Darius Leonard, who’s in a contract year, and Quenton Nelson. They picked up his fifth-year option. They’ve kind of budgeted money elsewhere.”

Jones could be reunited with former Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, if he’s traded to San Francisco. Jones caught a league-leading 136 passes and 1,872 yards under Shanahan in 2015. He caught 83 passes for 1,409 yards in 2016 and helped the Falcons reach the Super Bowl.

Jones could balk at a trade.

“Would a team really want to take him knowing that he didn’t want to be there,” Corry said. “One way he could balk at it is (to say) the only way I’m coming here is you’re going to have to re-do my contract. Coming off an injury-plagued year at his age, without seeing that he’s (the same) Julio (as) when he’s healthy? Who wants to do that?”

New Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot did not have an update on Jones’ situation for the record. He stood by his comments that he made to the media during the pre-draft period about the team accepting calls inquiring about Jones. It was pointed out that the team doesn’t consider itself to be shopping Jones around the league.

“We knew when we stepped into this we were going to have to make some tough decisions because it’s just the reality of it,” Fontenot said. “That’s where we are with the salary cap. So, we have to make some difficult decisions, so we have to look at all the different options and all the different scenarios.”

Whatever the Falcons decide, they’ll have some future cap consequences.

“With the cap, it’s going to take time,” Fontenot said. “We want to have a healthy cap at some point, so we can’t just restructure every contract because it’s hurting us in future years.”

Over the years, Ryan has been reluctant to comment on his teammates’ business situations with the team. But he clearly is not ready to deal with what life without Jones would look like.

“I don’t know,” Ryan said. “He’s been such a cornerstone of what we’ve done for a long time. I don’t know. That’s a hypothetical, and I don’t really want to go down that road. Not really my business.”

Jones, the Falcons’ all-time receiving leader with 848 catches, 12,896 yards and 60 touchdowns, has been a mainstay of the offense since he was drafted sixth overall out of Alabama in 2011.

Trading Jones would not go over well with Ryan.

“He’s been just such a great player,” Ryan said. “He’s a hell of a teammate. I love him, and we’ll see how things shake out. He’s probably impacted my career more significantly than any other player. I’ve been really fortunate to be around him for as long as I have.”

Ryan and Jones connected on the pass play that should have won Super Bowl LI for the team, but questionable play-calling by Shanahan cost the team field-goal range and a chance to wrap up the victory.

“Listen, I love Julio,” Ryan said. “I’ve been so lucky to play with him for the past decade, and he’s an unbelievable player. I don’t get involved in this side of it, from a teammate and player standpoint, he’s my teammate. He’s my guy.

“You let the other side of it shake out how it is. I know that he’s always ready to go. He’s an incredible competitor and one of the best ever to do it at his position. He’ll have himself ready to go, there is no question about that.”

Ryan hasn’t allowed himself to think of an offense with Jones, Kyle Pitts, Calvin Ridley and the rest of their weapons.

“We’re really at the beginning of this,” Ryan said. “We are making sure we can get lined up in our formations. Making sure that we understand what routes we have on certain concepts.”

When Jarrett signed a four-year, $68 million deal in 2019, one of the finer points was that he’d get a chance to become a free agent again at age 30 after the 2023 season. His agent, Todd France, doesn’t want to give up that leverage two years early before the salary cap is expected to explode in 2023.

When asked if he would like a contract extension, Jarrett referred things to France.

“He’ll talk to the people up here (at the Falcons facilities) and everything is going to work out,” Jarrett said.

The two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle was asked if he wanted to be with the Falcons long-term.

“I’m from the city, but the league is what the league is,” Jarrett said. “But, I said what I said.”

Jarrett has the Falcons’ third highest salary-cap number for the 2021 season, at $20.8 million, which is behind only Ryan ($26.9 million) and Jones ($23 million).

How did the Falcons get into such a tight salary-cap scenario?

After the team went to Super Bowl LI, the thought was to keep the core of the team together, draft successfully and spend wisely to remain a contender in the NFC.

The Falcons started missing on key players in the draft in 2017 (defensive end Takk McKinley, linebacker Duke Riley and guard Sean Harlow), 2018 (right cornerback Isaiah Oliver and defensive tackle Deadrin Senat) and 2019 (right tackle Kaleb McGary, cornerback Kendall Sheffield, defensive lineman John Cominsky and running back Qadree Ollison). They had poor results from their free-agent signings such as guard Jamon Brown, guard James Carpenter and defensive end Dante Fowler.

Also, the $20 million decrease in the salary cap because of the coronavirus pandemic could not have been predicted.

Jones was part of the core they wanted to keep together and was referred to as a “Falcon for life” by Blank in 2016 during negotiations and again in 2018 during re-negotiations.

“You can’t blame Arthur (Blank) for that,” the person with knowledge of the contracts said. “The bottom line is you are always trying to keep as many good players as you can.”

One thing that most have learned through the pandemic is that things change.

In the coming days, Jones could no longer be a “Falcon for life.”

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