Cunningham: Falcons right to go all-in again on Jones

The Falcons today agreed to a contract extension with Julio Jones that includes the most guaranteed money ($47.5 million) for any wide receiver on his current contract. It's the second bold move by GM Thomas Dimitroff regarding Jones and the first one—trading five draft picks for the chance to draft Jones in 2011—had mixed results.

The impact of losing those picks (and subsequent poor drafting) became apparent as the team's depth dwindled the past two seasons. The Falcons still have a lot of needs and so the contract extension raises the same questions now as then about using so many resources on a wide receiver: Is Jones worth it?

I’m not sure he is but I think the Falcons had to take the risk. (And I mean that strictly in regards to football, not Arthur Blank’s business.)

Jones is one of the best wide receivers in the NFL and the Falcons will pay him accordingly. ESPN Stats and Info says the $47.5 million guaranteed for Jones is more than Dez Bryant ($45 million), Calvin Johnson ($43.8) and Demaryius Thomas ($43.5). A.J. Green may get even more when he gets his next deal but, for now, Jones is No. 1 in guaranteed money (which is the money that matters most).

Jones is a superlative talent. Probably no wide receiver in the league can match his combination of size, short-area quickness, speed, route-running and hands. After weeks of tangling with Jones in practice last year, since-departed safety Dwight Lowery declared: “I think I understand why the Falcons did what they did to get him.”

“He’s a big physical, receiver but he runs like he’s a small one,” Lowery said. “That is a hard combination to find and it’s a hard combination to prepare for. He has a very unique skillset. That comes with the ability he was given but he works pretty damn hard, too.”

Jones is the Falcons’ best player. They need a star wide receiver for as long as Matt Ryan is the quarterback and both players probably have about the same number of prime years left. Plus the Falcons  already were pot committed to Jones.

The reasons Jones could end up being worth the money are obvious but I’ve always thought there are two significant knocks against his value.

One is that Jones was terrific in 2013 (before he got hurt) and 2014 but the Falcons still didn’t win. There are lots of factors that contribute to winning, of course, but the reality is that Jones was extremely productive and explosive and the Falcons were bad because they had so many other holes. Part of that was because they had so much invested in Jones and now they've doubled down.

The second knock against Jones’ value is his so-so durability. He missed three games as a rookie, 11 in 2013 and one last season. Jones has played 49 regular-season games since 2011; Bryant has played 63 and Johnson and Thomas have played 59. Jones is tough, and he deserves credit for rehabbing hard after his October 2013 foot surgery and returning to form last season. The injury history is spotty, though.

No doubt Jones was a primary reason the Falcons had their best era. Since 2011 Jones ranks 19th among NFL wide receivers in receptions (278), 11th in yards (4,330) and 12th in touchdowns (26th). Jones ranks fourth in yards per reception (15.6) and second in yards per game (88.4) among players who matched or exceeded his 278 catchers over those four seasons.

Last season, Pro Football Focus graded Jones sixth-highest among wide receivers who played at least 60 percent of their team's snaps (behind Antonio Brown, Bryant, Jordy Nelson, Odell Beckham Jr. and Thomas). PFF ranked Jones 11th among that group in 2012 and 30th in 2011 (he didn't play 60 percent of the snaps in 2013.

The Falcons are all-in on Jones again. They will pay him the most guaranteed money for his position not necessarily because they believe Jones is the best, but because he’s the best available to them now and remains indispensable even as they rebuild. Time will tell how much the move translates to winning but the Falcons had to find out.