This blockbuster offseason is far from over, though the timeframe in which major trades are made has largely passed. It will be quite some time before we see how quarterback situations with Aaron Rodgers and Deshaun Watson are resolved, and by and large owners have already spent their money for 2021.
However, it continues to look ever so likely that Julio Jones is dealt, with the Falcons now months into their efforts to create some sort of a robust market for the future Hall of Famer. It's clear he is not in the team's short- or long-term plans, and that the organization has decided that peddling his contract is the means by which to create ample cap space to have a functioning operating baseline with which to sign draft picks and have some cap left over to add depth to account for injuries.
Rather than reset the entire course of the franchise by undergoing a thorough rebuild and casting off descending assets at various positions, this team is trying to sell itself as a quasi-contender by largely keeping the band together under new management, while trying to find some significant level of compensation for an aging receiver making $15M this season after years of battling injuries and coming off back-to-back drafts overloaded with young, cheap talent at that very position.
Discarding Jones after June 1 allows the Falcons to achieve the salary cap relief they so desperately covet, but that hardly ensures a healthy return. A younger and healthier DeAndre Hopkins moved for basically a second-round pick a year ago, with interested teams knowing he would demand a new contract, and while Jones is a fixed cost at this time, $15M is hardly chump change.
In fact, at $15.3M, Jones will take home the 10th most money of any receiver in the NFL, coming off a year in which he played just nine games and continued a trend in recent years in which he has been often on the injury report and when he does play, frequently is not at 100 percent. Sure, 85% of Jones is still a star, but there are ample concerns about how his body is trending, and entering his age-32 season, you can understand why teams aren't falling all over themselves to throw assets at the Falcons.
Would owner Arthur Blank be willing to eat a chunk of the contract – maybe even a significant chunk – to facilitate maximum trade compensation? Perhaps, but he needs maximum cap-space relief from this transaction as well, and it will be difficult to move anyone else from this Frankenstein roster to achieve such relief elsewhere, which is why this stalwart is available in the first place. This just smells like something Bill Belichick would do. This has an obvious Patriots feel to it, with a player of this magnitude out there for a likely modest return.
For what it's worth, Vegas seems to keep coming up with the same half-dozen teams or so as the favorites to land Jones, though several of those suggestions don't actually pass my smell test. Here's a look at those teams, and why I believe Jones will – or will not – actually land there next month:
They have never paid a WR more than $8M a year, were unwilling to go past $9.5M for JuJu this year and have an owner near the bottom of the NFL in overall cash spending dating to 2017. They drafted two receivers within the first four rounds of the draft for the second time in three years and just paid Sammy Watkins $6M to come on board. Jones won't help on special teams and while they say the offense is expanding, there is less volume in this passing game than any in the NFL. Oh, and they have no proven pass-rusher and Lamar Jackson and Mark Andrews are among those in line for massive extensions. Even if Blank ate $5M I'm not sure this is where Jones lands.
There is an obvious Kyle Shanahan connection here and the 49ers are not averse to splash moves. Yes, they have invested draft capital in the receiver position … but they have also seen just how brutal and barren things can be when injuries strike that position. Shanahan covets having an experienced Alpha in his receiver's room, and went out and traded for Emmanuel Sanders in that role during their Super Bowl run. Jones played for this coach before and knows the offense inside out and would likely play around with his contract for cap purposes if need be. This connection makes sense to me and this kind of proven, quintessential outside receiver to go along with the smaller guys and different body types already assembled would make for a potent unit.
Belichick and Shanahan tend to look at things similarly, and they did hook up on a blockbuster of their own a few years back when Jimmy G left New England. This coach has a thing for 30-something superstars going back the length of his career, and loves to buy low on future Hall of Famers. Yeah, they added some pass-catchers already in free agency, but Kendrick Bourne was really a one-year proposition at under $5M, and Nelson Agholor was a one-year wonder. No one on that roster has this kind of pedigree, and this offense needs to make a huge leap from where it was a year ago. Robert Kraft doesn't mind throwing his cash around, and this is another case where they could tweak the contract for cap purposes to allow maximum flexibility. Could be Randy Moss 2.0 for them. I like this fit a lot.
Sure, adding as many weapons as possible for Justin Herbert makes sense, but these guys could have kept Hunter Henry for another year at basically the same as what the market bore, and let that tight end walk. They are already paying big money at this position group and it would be quite a change of direction for this ownership group. The Chargers already have $38M in cap space committed to receivers in 2021, fourth-most in all of football according to Spotrac.com, and this feels like a luxury item for them. I can't recall them making many moves for this kind of salary at this point in a season, and am surprised to keep seeing them pop up among the betting favorites. Maybe I'm missing something.
There is an obvious connection between these organizations now, with former Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith now head coach of the Falcons. He knows that Tennessee roster inside out and there may be some young, cheap players he covets who aren't exactly frontline guys for the Falcons right now. And the Titans lost a top tight end and their No. 2 receiver in an offseason that saw quite a few defections at multiple positions, frankly. Those players left by and large because the Titans didn't want to pay what the market would, so grabbing a $15M receiver at this stage of the game would surprise me. I'm not sure that is where they are as an organization right now, knowing AJ Brown is going to be making top five WR money soon enough. It's worth noting that Spotrac has them last in the NFL in receiver payroll for 2021, but seems to me that is kind of by design knowing Brown is going to be ready for a megadeal come January. They have close to $200M already committed to payroll and that might be what they are comfortable with.
If you are looking for a dark horse outside of these teams, I have seen the Eagles around 10-1, and you can never count them out of this kind of a move. That division has no monster team, and while they are kinda retooling under a rookie head coach, they are always eager to make trades to add talent. Yes, they just drafted an Alabama WR in the first round, but the owner has traditionally been a big spender and they have a massive draft haul already assembled over the next few years, making it easier to part with in a situation like this.