Trading Julio Jones makes little sense for Falcons

Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones wears a shirt in honor of John Lewis while preparing to play the Seattle Seahawks in a NFL football game on Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020 in Atlanta. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”
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Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones wears a shirt in honor of John Lewis while preparing to play the Seattle Seahawks in a NFL football game on Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020 in Atlanta. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Is it better to have Julio Jones on the roster or gain a bit of salary-cap relief? That should be an easy answer for a team looking to win now. New Falcons coach Arthur Smith declared that’s what his outfit is aiming to do. There is no plausible argument to be made that the Falcons are a better team without Jones.

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The Falcons know this. They are motivated to trade Jones because they need to create space under the salary cap. But that rationale doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

The Falcons would create about $15.3 million in cap space for 2021 if they traded Jones after June 1. In that scenario they also would add $15.5 million in dead money (charges for players no longer on the books) to their 2022 team cap while creating about $4 million in space.

Dealing Jones this year would make the Falcons a worse team. They would gain some cap relief this year with a big dead-money charge due later. That’s hardly worth it. The only way the Falcons would get equal value for Jones is if they acquired a Pro Bowl-level player with a below-market contract. Those are the most valuable players in the NFL, which is why teams don’t trade them.

The Falcons can’t take back much money in a trade and save cap space. They would have to receive draft picks for Jones from one of the 10 teams with the cap space to take him. Even a dream haul of multiple first-round draft picks wouldn’t improve their chances of winning now. That’s the Falcons’ goal, we’re told.

The financial reasoning for trading Jones also doesn’t make sense because of how his current contract is structured. His cap figure of $23 million for 2021 decreases to $19.3 million in 2022 and 2023. The NFL cap will rise again next year after it was lowered 8% for 2021 because of reduced revenue during the pandemic.

The Falcons could keep Jones for two or three more seasons while automatically getting significant cap relief. Or they could release Jones after next season with much less cap pain. Or they could just let him play out his deal through 2023. Those all are more palatable options than trading Jones for a bit of cap space and what likely would be, at best, a first-round draft pick.

Nothing about this Jones saga makes sense. It doesn’t fit the pattern of other recent moves made by the Falcons.

General manager Terry Fontenot passed on the chance to draft a quarterback this month. He selected the prospect he identified as best available, tight end Kyle Pitts, with the No. 4 overall pick. Before that, Fontenot committed to incumbent QB Matt Ryan by restructuring his contract.

That set up the Falcons to have Ryan throwing to two excellent pass catchers, Jones and Calvin Ridley, plus a rookie touted as an all-time great prospect. Smith will be calling the plays after he earned praise for running the Titans offense. The Falcons have holes, but the passing game has the potential to be explosive.

Now the Falcons want to deal away Ryan’s best wide receiver to save relatively little cap space? I don’t get it.

I do understand if the Falcons are reluctant to restructure Jones’ contract. That would push bigger cap penalties into the future for an aging wide receiver coming off an injury-plagued season. But, as I noted, Jones’ cap figure will be reduced in 2022 if the Falcons make no changes at all to his contract.

There’s an obvious, less-risky way for the Falcons to gain cap space: restructure defensive tackle Grady Jarrett’s contract. They could do it by converting some or all his $13.5 million base salary for 2021 into a signing bonus. The Falcons would face no cap penalty if they didn’t trade or release him before his contract expires after the 2022 season, which is not happening.

Jarrett is only 28 years old and has missed three games in five seasons. He’s a two-time Pro Bowler in the prime of his career. Healthy, young and productive players are candidates for restructuring contracts for cap space. Instead, the Falcons are looking to meet that goal by trading Jones.

I don’t put much stock into Arthur Blank saying Jones will be with the Falcons for life. It’s kind of thing team owners say to placate fans who would be unhappy to see popular players leave. The NFL is a business. Chances are that, at some point, the Falcons will part with Ryan and Jones, and the players will seek employment elsewhere if they so choose.

The Falcons decided that time isn’t now for Ryan. Restructuring his contact increased the cap penalty for releasing or trading him next season. That’s what teams do when they want to retain expensive, productive veterans while creating cap space now.

The Falcons also did that this offseason with Jake Matthews and Deion Jones. They did it with Julio Jones in 2019. Seeking to trade him now, when his cap figure is set to increase after this season, is what teams do with an expensive veteran they don’t want to keep.

Perhaps the new Falcons regime is just ready to move on from Jones even if it creates little space under the salary cap. Falcons AJC beat writer D. Orlando Ledbetter reports that the new coaches were shocked to learn the amount of practice time Jones missed last season. He played in only nine games, and missed most of two of them, because of a persistent hamstring injury.

That would be a bad reason for parting with Jones. He’s no malingerer. If anything, he’s too much of a gamer. The main issue for Jones last season was trying to play games with the injury when it was clear that he wasn’t effective.

Blame Jones for not sitting out long enough to allow the hamstring to heal. Blame the previous coaching staff for not insisting that he do so. Don’t blame Jones for sitting out practices because he wanted to save himself for games. That strategy has worked great for him during his career.

Jones has talked repeatedly about how the fast-twitch, explosive muscles in his legs must be handled with care. Everyone knows that, when it’s time to play, Jones will produce if he’s healthy. It would be foolish for coaches to knock Jones for not practicing when he doesn’t think he should because ... why, exactly?

Before last season, Jones had a streak of six consecutive seasons in which he played at least 14 games. He was voted to the Pro Bowl in all of them. Jones led the NFL in receiving yards per game for three of those seasons. There still is no other NFL wide receiver with his combination of size, speed and short-area quickness.

Jones has plenty left in the tank. The Falcons are willing to trade their great receiver to help a little bit with their salary-cap mess. It will be a mistake if, come June 1, they actually do it.

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