Falcons can’t trade Ryan and Jones anytime soon, but that’s not so bad

Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones (11) and quarterback Matt Ryan (2) talk during an NFL football training camp practice Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020, in Flowery Branch, Ga. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, Pool)
Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones (11) and quarterback Matt Ryan (2) talk during an NFL football training camp practice Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020, in Flowery Branch, Ga. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, Pool)

Credit: John Bazemore

Credit: John Bazemore

Falcons president and de-facto general manager Rich McKay has said more than once that he isn’t inclined to trade Matt Ryan or Julio Jones for draft picks before the Nov. 3 deadline. McKay and team owner Arthur Blank are framing that choice as allowing the next GM and coach to shape the roster. What they aren’t explicitly saying is McKay couldn’t make those trades even if wanted to because that would make the team’s bad 2021 salary-cap situation only worse.

Former Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff’s strategy of loading up on big-money extensions for key players would look good if those players produced for winning teams. Instead, the Falcons are headed for their third consecutive losing season. Co-team builders Dimitroff and Dan Quinn missed too often on draft picks and free agents, so the Falcons are a bad team with lots of high-priced players.

That leaves the Falcons in a kind of purgatory.

There are enough good players on the roster to reasonably believe the Falcons can make a quick turnaround in an NFL that’s engineered for it. Yet those players are part of a losing outfit. Trading or cutting them likely would mean a longer rebuild because of the cap ramifications. But if the Falcons keep them, they might get those results, anyway.

The Falcons may have little choice but to stick with Ryan and Jones for at least one more season. I don’t think that’s such a bad thing. Both still are good players. The Falcons can follow through on their plan to do everything they can to win while Ryan and Jones still have something left.

The next GM might have a different view. Maybe the Falcons will decide to absorb the huge cap hits that trading Ryan or Jones will require. If so, the future GM had better secure a long-term contract from Blank. Trading Ryan or Jones before next season means the Falcons will have less talent, and the cap will be in bad shape for longer.

Dealing them before June 1 should be out of the question. The Falcons would have to take a double hit on their cap: lots of “dead money” left on the books that can’t be used for other salaries and very little in cap savings. There’s no justification for that.

Trading Ryan after June 1 would cost the Falcons only a bit more cap space, but would leave about $44 million in dead money. Trading Jones after June 1 would result in $23 million in dead money and save less than $8 million in cap space.

Restructured deals for Ryan and Jones could open some cap space for 2021. But unless they accept less money (they won’t) that would just push potential cap pain into the future. If they aren’t in the plans for the new regime, better to wait until after 2021 to trade or release them so it won’t devastate the cap.

There’s a decent case for dealing Jones next summer with regard to the cap, but as always, the question is what the Falcons could get in return.

Jones, 31, is among the NFL’s best wide receivers when healthy. That hasn’t been often this season. Jones still ranks seventh in receiving yards per game. His base salaries of $15.3 million in 2021 and $11.5 million in 2022 should be acceptable for a contending team in need of a No. 1 wide receiver. But major NFL trades are rare in general and especially for high-salaried players such as Jones.

All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins had three non-guaranteed years left on his contract when the Texans traded him to the Cardinals in March for second- and fourth-round picks. The Texans also had to send a fourth-round pick to Arizona and take on David Johnson’s burdensome contract. Accepting an overpaid player at a relatively unimportant position means the Texans really got less value than a second-round pick for Hopkins.

The Texans should have gotten a first-round pick out of the deal. Could the Falcons receive that for Jones, who next year will be five years older than Hopkins was when he got traded?

I understand why some Falcons backers are advocating for the team to trade Jones and Ryan and start over, no matter the cap costs. That’s not happening this year. The Falcons could trade Jones next summer without ruining the cap. I just don’t see how the benefit would outweigh the costs.

Even if the Falcons end up taking one of the top quarterback prospects in the next draft there would be value in keeping Ryan around. For one thing, avoiding more cap pain would make it easier to build a better team around the new QB. Keeping Ryan also would allow the rookie QB to be eased into the NFL, which doesn’t happen much anymore for financial reasons but should.

The Falcons are committed to Ryan and Jones. Ryan got his contract extension in May 2018, when the Falcons still looked to be contenders. Jones got his in September 2019, just before they began a second consecutive losing season. Now the Falcons either have to keep those two or trade them for what likely wouldn’t be much of a return, and what definitely would be cap-crushing transactions.

You can argue that the Falcons aren’t far away from going back to the playoffs. Four of their five losses this season are by one score, including two one-point defeats. They blew big leads to the Cowboys and Bears. The Falcons lost to the Lions on Sunday after Todd Gurley failed in trying not to score a TD (but don’t forget the terrible roughing-the-passer penalty on fourth down that gave the Lions another chance to score a TD).

Yet with the Falcons we know that close scores require context. Gurley just got here and already he’s been initiated into the Falcons fraternity of finding ways to lose. Blowing big leads had become their trademark under Quinn. Maybe a new coach can break them of that habit and unlock their full potential.

But I’m always inclined to believe it’s more about player personnel than coaching. From that perspective, the next GM will inherit a roster that’s not a complete wasteland.

Ryan still is a top-10 QB. Jones, Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage form a strong receiver corps. The (twice) rebuilt offensive line has a chance to be good enough. Even if the cap weren’t in bad shape, it would make sense for the new GM to keep the offense together while building the defense.

The defense pretty much needs everything: cornerbacks, pass rushers and safeties. The draft will be key because that’s where underpaid players can be found. McKay said the Falcons can “maneuver around” their tight cap for 2021 to add necessary free agents. Dimitroff used to say that kind of stuff, and you see where that’s left the Falcons.

It’s possible the Falcons could return to the playoffs in 2021 if their defense improves and the team figures out how to finish games. If that plan doesn’t work, then the Falcons can try to get what they can for Ryan and Jones after 2021 while not damaging their cap even more.

As it stands, the Falcons likely will keep both players through 2021. That wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

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