Are the Falcons prepared for life beyond Julio Jones?

Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones (11) warms up against the New Orleans Saints Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, in Atlanta. The Falcons began their offseason training program Tuesday, May 25, 2021, without longtime star receiver Julio Jones, who apparently has no intention of returning to a rebuilding team that is still struggling to get under the salary cap. (Danny Karnik/AP)
Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones (11) warms up against the New Orleans Saints Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, in Atlanta. The Falcons began their offseason training program Tuesday, May 25, 2021, without longtime star receiver Julio Jones, who apparently has no intention of returning to a rebuilding team that is still struggling to get under the salary cap. (Danny Karnik/AP)

Credit: Danny Karnik

Credit: Danny Karnik

There’s no way a team can trade one of its best players and win a popularity poll the next day. Remember when the Braves sent Dale Murphy to Philadelphia? When the Hawks swapped Dominique Wilkins for Danny Manning? (In midseason, no less, while in first place.) Even if the Falcons get outrageously lucky and reap a middling return for Julio Jones, they’ll take a hit. That’s guaranteed.

New coach Arthur Smith has been made to look silly – his non-responsive online presser Tuesday already is enshrined in the Museum of Lousy PR – but sometimes looking good is impossible. When that happens, a franchise can only try to muddle through until happier days are here again.

Know what tends to make fans happy? Winning.

Know how many seasons Julio Jones has worked for the Falcons? Ten.

Know how many ended with the Falcons above .500? Four.

Is he a great player? Yes. Is he among the finest receivers of this or any era? Without question. Would you rather have him on your team than not? Absolutely. Did he make the impossible catch that would have sealed the Super Bowl had Kyle Shanahan deigned to run the ball three times? Affirmative.

I yield to no one in my esteem for Julio Jones. He’s an all-timer. But he isn’t quite irreplaceable. No receiver is. That’s the way of the NFL. The Falcons’ new stewards wouldn’t be open to trading him had the previous administration not left behind a team that’s an on-field loser and a balance-sheet horror.

A team can restructure contracts to wiggle under the current cap, but restructuring isn’t the same as not paying. At some point, every dollar you’ve agreed to spend gets spent. The previous administration got so carried away by almost winning a Super Bowl that it tried to keep everything the same, which involved record contracts for Devonta Freeman, Matt Ryan and J. Jones. Grady Jarrett, Jake Matthews and Deion Jones got hefty raises. And what’s the Falcons’ post-Super record? 28-36.

Nobody wants to be the person who trades Julio Jones. That said, Smith and Terry Fontenot, the new general manager, were hired not least to cast a cold eye on this club and say, “Here’s what needs to happen.” We can only assume that Arthur Blank gave his approval if not his blessing.

On Monday, Jones answered his phone and told Shannon Sharpe of Fox Sports, “I’m outta there,” meaning Atlanta. (It’s unclear if Jones knew he was live on-air as he spoke.) He also said, “I want to win.” Which, to be fair, hasn’t happened here lately.

Credit: Atlanta Falcons

Falcons coach Arthur Smith refuses to comment on possibility of a roster move involving All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones.

Credit: Atlanta Falcons

Smith took to a digital platform Tuesday – he’d been scheduled to speak at the start of OTAs – and spent 16 minutes saying he couldn’t discuss the team’s plans for Jones, which essentially told us they’re planning on him being gone. It’d be difficult for Jones to walk into the Falcons’ locker room and say, “That part about me wanting to win? Just kidding. Let’s go lose some more!”

The Falcons’ new stewards are in an awful place. They’ll look silly if they don’t trade Jones, who has made his feelings known. They’ll be pilloried if/when they do. It’s unlikely they’ll net anything better than a Round 2 draft pick. Even at 32, he could help any team, but how much will he help in 2023, when his cap hit will be $19 million? How much is left in those oft-injured legs?

There is, however, reason to believe Fontenot/Smith – newbies at their respective jobs – might just know what they’re doing. They resisted the urge to draft a quarterback in Round 1. (Or any round.) They appear to be happy with Ryan, whose contract was reconfigured and who just turned 36. The selection of Kyle Pitts with the fourth overall pick surely wasn’t made in a vacuum.

When the Falcons took the gifted tight end, we all wondered how he’d look alongside Jones in Smith’s offense. What we didn’t grasp was that Pitts isn’t here to augment Jones’ production. He’s here to help replace it.

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