The Falcons downplayed Julio Jones' absence from organized team activities in May, after the wide receiver also hadn't been present for Atlanta's offseason workouts prior to OTAs. Jones' decision to skip the June mandatory minicamp, however, was more troubling for the Falcons -- head coach Dan Quinn had anticipated Jones' attendance.
Jones isn't satisfied with the five-year, $71.25 million contract extension he signed in 2015, which briefly made him the NFL's highest-paid wide receiver. He is seeking some sort of adjustment to his contract. The Falcons are reportedly receptive to the idea.
General manager Thomas Dimitroff acknowledged during the minicamp there had been "constructive and productive" dialogue with Jones' camp. Jones is represented by Creative Artist Agency's Jimmy Sexton, who changed the non-quarterback market in 2015 by negotiating defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh's blockbuster deal ($114.375 million/six years; $59.955 million fully guaranteed) with the Dolphins during free agency.
Jones is scheduled to make $34.426 million through the 2020 season. His salary is $10.5 million this year, $12.5 million next year and $11.426 million in 2020.
Quinn expressed confidence at minicamp that Jones' situation would be resolved before the Falcons veterans report to training camp on July 26, but addressing Jones' contract in a significant way may be easier said than done.
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Jones' source of unhappiness
Wide receivers have been hot commodities this offseason, particularly in free agency. Allen Robinson receiving a three-year, $42 million contract with $25.2 million in guarantees from the Bears was unexpected because he tore his left ACL in the Jaguars' 2017 season opener.
The most surprising deal belongs to Sammy Watkins. The Chiefs gave him a three-year, $48 million contract with $30 million fully guaranteed. Watkins drew considerable interest in free agency before signing with the Chiefs. The Bears, Cowboys and Packers reportedly were among his suitors.
Watkins caught a rather pedestrian 39 passes for 593 yards and eight touchdowns with the Rams last season after being traded from the Bills during training camp. The 2014 fourth-overall pick's only 1,000 receiving yard season came in 2015. Prior to the trade, the Bills passed on a fifth-year option in 2018 for Watkins at $13.258 million due to his persistent problems with a broken left foot.
Jarvis Landry, who was designated as a franchise player by the Dolphins for $15.982 million before the Browns traded for him in March, fundamentally changed the way slot wide receivers are paid. Cleveland signed Landry to a five-year, $75.5 million deal with $47 million in guarantees. $34 million was fully guaranteed at signing. Wide receivers that primarily thrive in the slot, like Landry has, typically have been paid less than those that excel on the outside or can take the top off opposing defenses.
A Mike Evans extension, which was signed with the Buccaneers in March before free agency started, was always going to exceed Jones' deal. In 2017, Evans joined A.J. Green and Randy Moss as the only wide receivers in NFL history to reach the 1,000 receiving yard mark in each of their first four seasons. His five-year extension averaging $16.5 million per year has $55.008 million of guarantees, where $38.258 million is fully guaranteed.
The Watkins deal may be the biggest source of Jones' frustration because Watkins is being paid like an elite receiver without matching production. Jones can make a case for being the NFL's best wide receiver. He has averaged slightly over 100 receptions and almost 1,600 receiving yards a season since Watkins' NFL career began in 2014. His 95.3 receiving yards per game is the best career mark in NFL history. The five-time Pro Bowler had one of the most prolific seasons for a wide receiver in 2015 when he had 136 catches for 1,871 yards. Jones' catches in 2015 are nine more than Watkins has had over the last three seasons. Watkins' 2,070 receiving yards during this span are just about 200 more than Jones' 2015 total.
Why the Falcons don't have to do anything for Jones
The Falcons would be justified leaving Jones' contract as it is until he is closer to free agency. Jones doesn't have leverage in this situation because he has three years left on his contract.
The top of the wide receiver market hasn't dramatically changed since Jones signed in 2015. Jones' $14.25 million average yearly salary is still eighth among wide receivers. His $47 million in overall guarantees is tied for third with Landry. Only Evans ($38.258 million) and DeAndre Hopkins ($36.5 million) have gotten more than the $35.5 million Jones had fully guaranteed at signing.
It seems apparent that Jones is focusing on his remaining compensation rather than looking at his deal in its entirety. Jones is conveniently forgetting that his contract is frontloaded. This narrow view is quite common among players who want to renegotiate with multiple years remaining on their contracts.
Green is the only wide receiver who has made more than Jones over the last three years. The following chart outlines the most cash received by wide receivers from 2015 through 2017. The Collective Bargaining Agreement's daily amounts for participating in a team's voluntary offseason workout program haven't been included in the calculations. Signing and roster bonus deferrals were taken into account.
|2015 cash||2016 cash||2017 cash||Total|
Green, a fellow 2011 first-round pick who was taken two spots ahead of Jones with the fourth-overall pick, isn't in a rush to renegotiate his contract. The seven-time Pro Bowler is supportive of Jones' efforts for an improved contract. It's easier for Green to have more patience with the four-year, $60 million extension he signed several days after Jones because 2019 is his contract year. The Bengals will likely extend Green's contract next offseason if he has his typical season. Green has averaged nearly 80 catches for almost 1,175 receiving yards with approximately eight touchdown receptions during his seven-year career.
Jones received a player-friendly structure with his contract. The percentage of money after each new contract year compares favorably with the percentages in the five-year, $150 million extension Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan recently received, which made him the NFL's first $30-million-per-year player, with a league-record $100 million in overall guarantees. The chart below illustrates the percentage differences with their respective deals.
|Contract||1st New Year||2nd New Year||3rd New Year||4th New Year||5th New Year|
What Jones could have done differently
Jones should have expected that his deal would be surpassed over time. That's the nature of the beast with high-end contracts. To combat this, he could have played the franchise-tag game that quarterback Kirk Cousins and cornerback Trumaine Johnson played so brilliantly the last two years before hitting the open market this offseason.
The chart below illustrates the difference between going year-to-year on franchise designations versus the first three years of Jones' actual contract.
Jones would have been looking at a $14.599 million franchise tag in 2016 after an outstanding 2015 campaign. His 136 receptions and 1,871 receiving yards are the second-most ever in an NFL season. Jones' season for the ages probably would have allowed him to eclipse Green's $15-million-per-year deal, which was the standard at wide receiver, and improve upon the actual guarantees in his own contract. Applying the 8.37 percent increase of the salary cap in 2016 to these marks would have put Jones at slightly over $16.25 million per year with a little under $51 million of guarantees in which almost $38.5 million was fully guaranteed.
A second franchise designation in 2017 at a CBA mandated 20-percent increase would have been after a season in which Jones was second in the NFL in receiving yards (1,409) and Atlanta went to the Super Bowl. Jones likely would have been in a position to surpass the $17-million-per-year extension the Steelers gave Antonio Brown a few weeks after Super Bowl LI.
A franchise tag for a third-straight year would have been too cost prohibitive for Atlanta. The requisite 44 percent increase over the second franchise tag would have put a third designation at a little more than $25.275 million. It's conceivable that Jones could have become the NFL's first $20-million-per-year non-quarterback on the open market this offseason whether re-signing with the Falcons or from another team under these circumstances. In hindsight, Jones should have bet on himself like Cousins and Johnson did.
What could be done for Jones
It is unusual for teams to renegotiate a player's contract with three years remaining, although the 49ers did so with inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman in 2016. Jones' situation isn't comparable to Andre Johnson's in 2010, when the Texans renegotiated his six-year, $44.05 million extension from 2007. Johnson had sold himself way short by representing himself. There were five years remaining when Johnson's deal was reworked -- $4 million of new money was added in the first two years of the existing deal, and $10.8 million of salary escalators were inserted in the last four remaining years, which could be earned by Johnson performing like a top wide receiver. Two new contract years were added as well.
Typically, a contract isn't ripped up in instances where the player is treated like he is approaching free agency when it is addressed with so much remaining time. Jones expecting that kind of treatment will likely make it extremely difficult to reach an agreement. More of a Band-Aid approach has been taken when elite players who felt underpaid were at similar stages of their deals.
The best Jones should reasonably expect this year is for the Falcons to adopt a similar approach to what the Patriots did with tight end Rob Gronkowski last year or the Steelers with Brown in 2015 and 2016.
The Patriots finally addressed Gronkowski's perpetual unhappiness with the six-year, $54 million extension he signed in 2012 to become the NFL's highest-paid tight end by average yearly salary. Gronkowski's contract had $5.5 million of incentives added. He earned the entire amount when he was named first team All-Pro by The Associated Press.
The Steelers adhered to their longstanding policy of not renegotiating contracts until one year is remaining (quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been the lone exception). Brown had clearly outperformed the five-year, $41.9 million extension he signed in 2012 after just two NFL seasons. Instead, Brown was given a $2 million raise in 2015 by taking money from his 2016 base salary. A little more than $2.5 million of much-needed cap room was created in the process because the money was converted into signing bonus along with a big portion of Brown's 2015 base salary. The Steelers were able to placate Brown again in 2016 through this concept with a $4 million increase coming from his 2017 compensation.
Sexton should reach an understanding with Falcons owner Arthur Blank that Jones' contract will be extended in 2019 when he has two years left if only a minor adjustment is made. The Brown approach would probably need to be done in cap-neutral manner considering that Falcons have approximately $7 million of 2018 cap space available. Only a handful of teams (Eagles, Panthers, Raiders, Rams and Steelers) have less cap space. For example, Jones could receive a $4 million raise this season by lowering his 2019 base salary from $12.5 million to $8.5 million where this amount and $2 million of his 2018 base salary are turned into a signing bonus. His 2018 cap number would stay at $12.9 million. Jones' 2019 cap hit would decrease by $2 million to $12.9 million while his 2020 figure would go from $11.426 million to $13.426 million.
Anything done with the Gronkowski method would require incentives to be classified as not likely to be earned (NLTBE) given Atlanta's tight salary cap. Incentives with higher thresholds than a player or team's statistical achievements in the prior season qualify as NLTBE. There isn't a salary-cap charge during the season with most NLTBEs. If earned, a team typically incurs the charge after the playoffs end. In Jones' case, exceeding 90 catches, 1,450 receiving yards, four touchdown receptions, 75 percent offensive playtime or being named first team All-Pro by The Associated Press would be deemed NLTBE based on his 2017 performance.
Jones should prefer the Brown approach over incentives or a combination of the two. An injury-plagued 2018 season would make it difficult, if not impossible, to earn incentives.
Jones might be better off in the long run with the minor adjustment this year where a true renegotiation occurs next offseason. Odell Beckham, Jr., who is scheduled to play this season under his fifth-year option, is expected to reset the wide receiver market whenever he signs a new deal. The existence of a Beckham deal should raise Jones' salary floor.
Potential ramifications of a Jones renegotiation
The Falcons renegotiating Jones' contract so he becomes the NFL's highest-paid wide receiver isn't out of the realm of possibility. A precedent that could be used against the Falcons in the future by extending Jones' contract would be set. Anytime a player with multiple years left on his contract felt he outperformed his deal, he or his agent would point to how Jones was handled. Given that Jones is arguably the game's best wide receiver, the Falcons could draw a distinction with his circumstances.
Potentially, the Falcons would be facing this situation next offseason, when right tackle Ryan Schraeder is at the same stage in his deal that Jones is in right now. The five-year, $31.5 million extension (worth up to $33 million through salary escalators) he signed during the latter part of the 2016 season quickly became outdated. Ricky Wagner changed the salary landscape for pure right tackles with the $9.5-million-per-year deal he received from the Lions during free agency in 2017.
Center Alex Mack would have license to seek a new deal in 2019 when he has two years left on the five-year, $45 million contract containing $28.5 million of guarantees he signed as a free agent in 2016. The contract put Mack at the top of the center market until Travis Frederick's extension with the Cowboys several months later. Mack, who has earned All-Pro honors in both of his seasons with the Falcons, is now tied with Justin Britt (Seahawks) as the league's fifth-highest-paid center by average yearly salary.
The potential impact of taking care of Jones before valuable players in contract years should be of more immediate concern to the Falcons. Namely, the wrong signal could be sent to defensive tackle Grady Jarrett and left tackle Jake Matthews, both potential 2019 free agents, about their importance to the organization.
Other veteran players around the NFL who feel they have outperformed their contracts would love to see Jones get rewarded. They would have more ammunition to push for new contracts sooner rather than later. For instance, 2017 NFL sack leader Chandler Jones, whose contract expires after the 2021 season, might feel emboldened to ask the Cardinals for a new deal in 2019 if Jones gets one this offseason, especially after salaries for players who can consistently pressure opposing quarterbacks begin to escalate dramatically once Aaron Donald and Khalil Mack sign new contracts.