Not so long ago, as in earlier this offseason, the Atlanta Falcons made sure the entire NFL knew they weren't interested in moving on from quarterback Matt Ryan and wide receiver Julio Jones. Fast forward to two days ahead of the 2021 NFL Draft and it's only Ryan who remains on that hill, as reports surfaced of the Falcons fielding calls on Jones -- actively listening to offers to determine if he'll still be in North Georgia this coming season. Given an opportunity to respond to the rumors directly, newly hired general manager Terry Fontenot didn't pull punches or attempt to veil his intent.
Bottom line? He is taking calls, and he's not ruling anything out regarding the future Hall of Famer.
"That's one of those things that, when you're doing things the right way in the organization, you have to listen to people's calls on any player," he told Justin Felder of FOX 5 in Atlanta. "And especially because we are in a difficult cap situation. That's just the circumstance. It's not a surprise for us -- the circumstance we're in."
As it stands, the Falcons have just over $2.4 million in salary cap space, and that's clearly a driver behind why they'd pivot on their initial hardline stance on Jones. That is certainly a cap crunch, but considering the main waves of free agency are behind them and the 2022 salary cap is set to presumably balloon due to an expected return of fans to stadiums -- along with a gargantuan influx of revenue from new TV contracts and gambling -- it still begs the question as to why the Falcons would open the floodgates regarding Jones. For his part, Fontenot feels that all may not be enough, and he wants to weigh all of his options.
"Our administration has done an excellent job to this point in getting us in position to be able to manage the cap," he added. "Yet, we still have more work to do. So when teams call about any players, then we have to listen and we have to weigh it, and have to determine what's best for the organization. We have to handle everything with class.
"Obviously, that particular player we hold in high regard. He's special -- what he's done and what he continues to do here. But we have to consider any players, if it's right for the team, because we have to do what's best for this organization."
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If a deal is eventually struck to send Jones out of Atlanta, don't plan on it happening before June 1. After signing him to a three-year extension in 2019 worth $66 million with $64 million guaranteed, if the Falcons trade him prior to June 1, they'd be on the hook for $23.25 million and would drop back into the red with $200,000 owed against the cap. Those numbers flip after June 1, and the team would garner a lessened dead money hit of $7.75 million and net $15.3 million in savings -- the latter circling the mind of Fontenot. This would, however, rip the heart and soul out of the Falcons receiving corps, and that's something else to consider.
It could be that the Falcons are eyeing receiving prospect Kyle Pitts in the upcoming draft, which they likely already were if they want to go all out on allowing Ryan a chance to finish his career in Atlanta on a Super Bowl note, but if the goal is to turn the passing offense into a superpower -- adding Pitts to subtract Jones doesn't achieve that goal. Playing both together would, along with Calvin Ridley, Russell Gage and tight end Hayden Hurst.
Time will tell if that happens, though, but a worst-case scenario for Atlanta would be to pass on Pitts and trade Jones, because then it would presumably be trading cap savings for wins.
While Jones has nursed injury recently, playing in only nine games last season, he was able to deliver 771 receiving yards in the process. In 2020, he racked up 1,394 yards and six touchdowns in 15 games played and, in 2019, he reeled in a monstrous 1,677 receiving yards to go along with eight touchdowns in 16 games played. All told, his availability issues are mostly exclusive to last season -- his 2013 season notwithstanding -- with Jones having been on the field for a combined 92 starts the six years prior to last season (he missed only four regular-season games during that stretch).
This all goes to why teams are calling to see what they can offer in exchange for Jones, but it's also why the Falcons better think long and hard before sending him elsewhere to finish his illustrious NFL career.
And, seemingly, they are.