The Atlanta Falcons will very likely trade the franchise's greatest wide receiver, but it may not be soon and it certainly won't be for nothing.
No team has made the Falcons a legitimate trade offer for Julio Jones, sources tell me, which means there's no leader in the clubhouse on where he could land. And I'd be floored if Atlanta dealt him away for anything less than a second-round pick. It may take a second-round pick plus something in order to get the deal done.
Atlanta, though, won't take scraps. Dealing Jones for a 2022 third-round pick wouldn't be in the team's best interest — both in the short or long term. If a trade partner doesn't emerge by training camp, I believe the Falcons will grudgingly rework Jones' contract to move money around and deal with this same issue next offseason.
Dealing Jones would be a post-June 1 transaction that can be agreed to at any point and then executed on or after that date. Only a quarter of NFL teams currently have the cap space to take on his $15.3 million in guaranteed money, though any team motivated enough to trade for one of the best receivers of the 2000s would be willing to find the necessary space.
After reworking the deals for younger guys like Deion Jones and Jake Matthews, and then restructuring Matt Ryan's contract when it was untradeable, the Falcons were faced with redoing Grady Jarrett's deal and/or dealing Jones to remedy cap issues bought on by the COVID-19-related cap dip and the previous regime looking to extend a title window.
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Jones signed a three-year, $66 million extension with the Falcons just before the 2019 season. He got $64 million of that guaranteed in what was obviously a win for Jones and his agent, Jimmy Sexton. In the five years before landing that $66 million extension, Jones had played in all 16 games in three of those seasons and missed a total of just three games. He was, and still is, the NFL's all-time leader in receiving yards per game. And the Falcons believed they were well within their championship window despite stumbling to a 7-9 record in 2018.
But the wheels fell off for the team in 2019, and the 2020 patchwork job made it five games before Arthur Blank fired both Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff. Jones' historic production slipped ever so slightly in 2019 and then fell off last season when he missed seven games.
Extending championship windows by giving large guaranteed salaries and restructuring existing deals works when you're in the hunt for a Lombardi. The Saints came away from this last half-decade without a trophy but the idea was sound. The bill always comes due, and you hope to have some hardware to show for it when it does. The Falcons do not, and with less than a million dollars in cap space, they need help.
There seemed to be a burst of interest in a potential Jones trade last week, but it now appears to be more media-driven than anything tangible. We're all in need of something to talk about now that the Aaron Rodgers' drama has subsided for a few days and NFLPA negotiations on OTAs aren't all that exciting. Since no offers have been made, it would just be educated speculation on where Jones lands, because I do believe he will ultimately be traded.
I could see the 49ers, Broncos, Packers and Patriots all being landing spots. The first two teams have the cap space, and Denver could make a Lakers-like move to secure Jones as it continues its pursuit of Rodgers. Similarly, if the Packers are as boombox-outside-the-window desperate to please Rodgers as they make it seem, they could clear up the space to bring in Jones. And, of course, the Patriots could open up their wallets once more.
I'd be stunned if this ended with Jones anywhere but a contender. Not only is he one of the best and most beloved Falcons of all time, but his agent also represents head coach Arthur Smith. I'm told there's a steady stream of conversation among all parties, so no one has been blindsided by any news over the past month nor will they be once trade offers really begin to percolate.
If not for the cap crunch brought about due to COVID-related financial issues, I believe Jones would undoubtedly be a Falcon in 2021. But Atlanta has to find some money somewhere, and I bet a contender will eventually see enough mileage left on Jones to give up a second-rounder within the next two months.