For the second straight year an uber-accomplished wide receiver with no off-field blemishes is being marketed extensively via trade, and, for the second straight year, the deal is quite likely to produce far less in return than what many fans might imagine.
Forget what you may be reading amid the breathless reporting about Julio Jones. There is no feeding frenzy, there is no race between teams to try to snag the future Hall of Famer before anyone else. There is no line of owners eager and willing to pay him over $15M next season. If there were, this trade would have been agreed to in principle before the draft and the announcement this week (after June 1 for cap purposes for the Falcons) would be a mere formality.
That ain't the case.
If anything, it's starting to feel a little bit like a year ago, when Bill O'Brien gave away DeAndre Hopkins to the Cardinals for what amount to a second-round pick, with Houston also absorbing a salary dump of David Johnson's contract in the process. And O'Brien deserves all the ridicule for all of the ridiculous things he did in his brief-but disastrous tenure as the coach and GM, but the fact is there was not a host of teams eager to give Hopkins the $40-odd million in new money he craved, nor are there a surplus of teams eager to take on Jones' deal now.
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Hopkins is younger and healthier and he should have netted more than a second-round pick … but he didn't. And, yes the pandemic had a chilling impact on NFL free-agent spending across the board, but it was also clear that the receiver position was hit particularly hard. JJ Smith-Schuster didn't have close to the market he thought he might, Kenny Golladay was trying to create a high-end market deep into the process before the Giants bid against themselves to pay him $36M the next two years. Guys like TY Hilton and Sammy Watkins had limited markets.
For all of the record-setting numbers being put up, and despite this being the most pass-happy era in NFL history, there was not a feeding frenzy for receivers, and even now the Falcons are dealing with market factors that are less-than-ideal to get close to full value for the totality of production Jones has amassed through his first-ballot Hall of Fame career. So it might be time to take a step back and view this eventual trade not through the prism of the moment, but through a several year portal into what has been going on at this position. The college game set the trend with the spread offenses and using four-wides as a base package and throwing the ball around vertically and horizontally like never before. They are developing receivers and corners at a high rate because of those changes, which have bled into the pro game and resulted in consecutive draft classes loaded with pass catchers who won't be making any real money by NFL starting standards for at least three years.
We have seen traditionally receiver-needy franchises like the Ravens (also at the forefront of the analytics movement in this sport), twice in the last three years opt to draft receivers in the first four rounds of a draft rather than "win" a bidding war for one in free agency. We saw Bill Belichick make three quick and calculated moves very early in free agency to land two receivers and a move tight end, then sit back and pick up another tight end when the market was soft and still be in position to grab Jones for a second-round pick (or whatever) tomorrow if he chooses.
The Falcons had to wait until after June 1 to actually execute this transaction because they are desperate for the cap relief it can provide at that point. Make no mistake – this is a salary dump and they need that savings to operate because their former regime habitually overrated their talent and overpaid for players and ran a middling NFL team like it was perpetually on the cusp of a Lombardi.
Which brings us to this spring. Had they been able to deal him before the draft – again, crawling with receivers of all shapes and sizes for all seven rounds – maybe they could have truly manifested this "race to trade for Julio Jones, people keep alleging is going on. When in reality, as we have continued to report, the Falcons have been peddling a 32-year old receiver who has hurt much of last year, desperate to get a first-round pick, with a small handful of teams monitoring the situation and mostly scoffing at the entire process.
You can try to masquerade a salary dump as a high-value football trade in the media (apparently with great success). But you can't with other front offices, and, sadly for the Falcons, O'Brien is not running an NFL team anymore. Again, if the Falcons had any leverage or strength here, there was a handshake deal in April. Think about how many NFL trades get reported on at the combine every February, which cannot be formally announced until the start of the league year weeks later in March. The Falcons aren't doing a pre-draft media blitz trying to drum up interest in the player and bracing their fans for his exit, if they already have a boffo market for him.
The question then becomes, if they do get basically what Hopkins fetched a year ago, are there bigger picture conclusions to draw. Pandemic or not, NFL owners knew they were each going to pocket $3B over the next decade from TV revenues alone when they waded into free agency, and no receiver got close to the $20M per year the Cowboys gave Amari Cooper a few years ago. And with all of their young receiving talent, Dallas might be a year away from trying to move Cooper, and I suggest they don't get close to what they originally gave the Raiders to land him (first-round pick). And consider, the Chiefs bought very low on Tyreek Hill in the aftermath of his legal problems, making him an extreme bargain and one more factor that teams can use to try to tamp down a surge in spending at this position.
If the Browns were to move Odell Beckham, Jr. for any reason, do we think they would be able to get close to the package John Dorsey sent to New York for him in the first place (Beckham's $65M in guarantees at signing his extension with the Giants back in 2018 still leads the receiver position, according to Spotrac)? The Saints seemingly started entertaining the idea of possibly trading Michael Thomas shortly after that deal was done. And, again, while we can knock O'Brien all we like for the Hopkins trade, it was the receiver's contract demands – well known throughout the industry – that also limited his field of actual suitors.
Seems to me, there aren't that many teams eager to pay $20M for receivers. The idea that a great QB – especially once he starts making $40M a year – can help develop them at a cheaper rate, seems to be resonating. It will be very interesting to see if 2019 receiver first-round draft picks like Hollywood Brown and N'Keal Harry get their fifth-year options for 2023 picked up (at a cost of around $12M). As our cap and contract expert Joel Corry put it to me recently - "My advice to them would be to have a career year." Indeed.
If Ju-Ju couldn't get $10M this year, and opted to stay put (like Hilton), and the top guys could not push back to $20M a year, are we certain a strong upper-middle class will develop between $12-$15M? Or will they be squeezed out in part by yet another wave of college standouts ready to make the leap? If the Falcons end up moving Jones for what the industry expects, it won't be great news for receivers, again.