‘Contingency plans’ without Julio Jones are terrible for Falcons

Credit: AJC

Here’s a quick by-the-numbers look at Falcons star receiver Julio Jones entering the 2021 season.

Credit: AJC

Relations soured between Julio Jones and the Falcons during the organization’s leadership change. Team president Rich McKay hired general manager Terry Fontenot and coach Arthur Smith. The three team executives had a responsibility to sell Jones on their vision and they couldn’t do it.

Explore5 takeaways from Falcons’ first open OTA

Or they didn’t want to do it because they were ready to move on from Jones. Or maybe there was nothing they could do because Jones already was determined to move on from the Falcons. It’s hard to say. The Falcons aren’t commenting publicly and Jones isn’t talking after going public Monday with his desire to be traded.

That storm was waiting for Smith at the start of voluntary team activities on Tuesday. He navigated it by saying as little as possible. Smith expressed gratitude for a player he’s yet to work with, while offering zero insight into whether he believes they still might work together.

Said Smith: “I’ve got so much respect and appreciation for what Julio Jones has done here for this franchise and what he’s meant to this city. We have conversations about our roster all the time. You have to contingency plans.”

Falcons head coach Arthur Smith urges his team to hustle during organized team activities (OTAs) Tuesday, May 25, 2021, at the team training facility in Flowery Branch. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Falcons head coach Arthur Smith urges his team to hustle during organized team activities (OTAs) Tuesday, May 25, 2021, at the team training facility in Flowery Branch. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

I’m sure Smith and Fontenot have a long list of contingency plans. I doubt any of them cover Jones wearing a Cowboys jersey in a viral video, telling FS1′s Shannon Sharpe he’s “outta there” regarding the Falcons, and implying that he must leave for a real chance to win (but not to Dallas). Jones thrust his strained relationship with the Falcons into public, though he didn’t seem to know he was live on air.

It’s not clear if the Falcons were ready to move on from Jones before he asked to be moved. ESPN reported that Jones made the request in March. Fontenot has been fretting about the team’s cap problems for longer than that. But he doesn’t have to trade Jones to solve them.

The Falcons aren’t in position to ask for much in return for Jones. The limited number of potential trading partners know the Falcons need cap relief and that Jones wants out. The Falcons are in the terrible position of pretty much taking what they can get for Jones, who’s still a top-5 NFL wide receiver when healthy.

That’s a bad look for the organization. It makes Smith’s transition tougher. He almost surely will begin his first season as head coach without an all-time great wide receiver who’s under contract. He’ll only have a draft pick or two to show for it.

Smith: “You know what you signed up for. If you don’t like problems, stay out of leadership.”

ajc.com

The Falcons are sticking with the message that they’re trying to trade Jones because of the cap. They’d get $15.3 million in room by trading him after June 1. Smith said there are “multiple options” for creating cap space. He said the Falcons have a plan, but wouldn’t say whether Jones is part of it.

Trading Jones would be a bad outcome. The Falcons would gain cap relief at the expense of losing their great wide receiver for next to nothing. The trade also would take a big chunk of their 2022 cap. There is no silver lining for the Falcons in trading Jones.

Jones isn’t saying why he wants to leave. His past beefs with the Falcons were about his desire for more security in the form of guaranteed money. That shouldn’t be an issue for Jones now. His $15.3 million salary for 2021 is fully guaranteed. Jones will get all of it if he shows up to play, or if the Falcons release him.

There’s more to this than money. During the weird interview with Sharpe, Jones said he wants to play for a team with a better chance of winning. The Falcons have been losers for three years running. After playing all 10 NFL seasons for the Falcons with no indication that he wanted out, Jones suddenly is looking for the exit.

That’s after the Falcons hired a new coach and GM. Jones apparently has decided that the Falcons will be no better with the new regime than they were with the old one.

Said Smith: “I respect everybody’s opinion. People can wear what they want to wear, say what they want to say. That’s healthy.”

I’m all for players having the power to determine their working conditions, including location. Most NFL “contracts” bind the player to the team, but not the other way around. Stars such as Jones have more leverage. They should use it when they can to get what they want.

But only a handful of NFL players under contract have the power to dictate their destination. Everyone on that short list plays the most valuable position, quarterback. Jones is a great player. He’s still a wide receiver.

The Falcons have the option of dragging this saga out and playing hardball. If Jones didn’t report to July training camp within the first five days, the Falcons could fine him for time missed. It won’t come to that, though. Smith doesn’t want his first training camp as head coach to feature a public dispute with a franchise great.

Smith coordinated Tennessee’s offense the past two seasons. It’s easy for NFL assistant coaches to stay out of any contract drama. Other people made roster decisions for the Titans. Smith just worked there.

Now Smith is the head coach. He’s going to be asked about Jones for as long as Jones is on the roster. That shouldn’t be for much longer because the new Falcons leadership couldn’t (or didn’t want to) persuade Jones to be part of the team’s future.

About the Author

ajc.com

In Other News