It’s a move no one would really want to make. Parting with franchise stars, players who could end up in the Hall of Fame, is never an easy thing. Teams do it every year, the multibillion-dollar business side of a game.
But every career sees changes, and in the National Football League moving on is a harsh part of life. Which is where the Falcons might sit at the moment with star receiver Julio Jones.
The draft over, the Falcons now must turn their attention to the rest of their roster -- and what it might look like in the fall. The draft class still needs to be signed. Cap space remains incredibly tight, which is how Atlanta ended up in a conversation about possibly trading Jones.
“The answer to that is just pointing to the cap and pointing to the fact that we’ll answer calls on any players,” new Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot said last month. “When teams ask about players, we have to answer those calls and we have to listen because we do have to, we knew when we stepped into this we were going to have to make some tough decisions because it is just the reality of it.
“That’s where we are with the salary cap, so we have to make some difficult decisions.”
Trading Jones isn’t a performance thing. It’s simply the reality of a shrunken salary cap due to COVID-19 and a cap-flow problem the previous regime left Atlanta in.
And this isn’t to say the Falcons are definitely trading Jones after June 1. If the return value isn’t there, whether that’s draft picks, good players on cheap contracts or a combination of both, it would be surprising to see Atlanta trade him.
With that in mind, here’s a few ways to look at the Falcons’ situation.
If Atlanta keeps Jones – which from an on-field perspective is logical – the Falcons have to find a way to free up money. That could come from releasing other players, and to speculate on names would not be prudent because there’s too many potential scenarios Fontenot could try.
There’s also the possibility of trading other players who wouldn’t get the return Jones would either in capital or cap relief.
The other option would be to restructure Jones, much like the team did with Matt Ryan, Jake Matthews and Deion Jones. There aren’t many players they could ask for pay cuts from, like the team did with Dante Fowler Jr., but that’s another option.
But restructuring Jones -– or, perhaps Grady Jarrett –- could provide the short-term relief it needs while continuing to create potential cap problems in the future. Say the Falcons restructured $7.5 million of Jones’ contract. It would give Atlanta almost $6 million in cap room for this year, according to Over The Cap, but it would give Jones a cap hit of almost $22 million in 2022 and 2023. Which is, again, pushing the potential problem down the road. It’s an option, but maybe not the best long-term one.
Fontenot also acknowledged he doesn’t want to keep restructuring deals because it doesn’t help long-term.
“This is not going to be an overnight fix with the cap. It’s going to take time,” Fontenot said. “But we want to have a healthy cap at some point so we can’t just restructure every contract because it’s just hurting us in future years.”
Jones and Jarrett, though, are the only two players on the roster where a restructure would offer the kind of 2021 fiscal relief that would truly help.
Another option could be extending Jarrett, but to speculate on what a contract like that would look like could go in too many directions for how it could free up money for Atlanta.
As Fontenot takes potential calls, there are some things to consider. First is Fontenot didn’t “want to put a number on it” of what it would take to make a deal happen, so it’s not quite clear what the demarcation line is for Atlanta between keeping or trading.
Due to Jones’ age – he’s 32 – some teams may not be interested. Others have their own cap conundrums, so taking on Jones’ contract would not be a palatable plan for those teams. Others may feel good about their receiver corps.
And if you are a team interested in trading for Jones, you either would be one of two things: A team believing it's a star receiver away from a Super Bowl, or one trying to find a top option for a young quarterback to help him build.
But there would be clubs where a move like this could make sense.
New England: With around $16.5 million in cap space, the Patriots would have the room to make a deal. Bill Belichick has shown no concerns going after top players this offseason in free agency, and he has made trades to acquire players – particularly wide receivers. Remember, this is a franchise that traded for Randy Moss and Wes Welker in 2007 and Brandin Cooks in 2017. Plus, Belichick made a move for Corey Dillon in 2004. So the Patriots have made moves for playmakers in the past. While New England did sign Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne in free agency, Jones is another class of receiver and would give veteran Cam Newton and rookie Mac Jones a high-level target every down.
San Francisco: Reuniting Kyle Shanahan with Jones would be intriguing and with cap room of $17.5 million, there is space to figure out a deal. Compensation would have to come in something other than a first-round pick, though, since San Francisco doesn’t have any in 2022 or 2023 because of the Trey Lance deal. But the Niners could use a receiver, especially since neither Deebo Samuel nor Brandon Aiyuk was incredibly healthy last year. There’s also the Jimmy Garoppolo contract question as well that would seemingly play into any high-money move San Francisco would make. But Jones would fit into the scheme and end up on a contender.
Indianapolis: The Colts have the cap room (just over $21.5 million) and a quarterback in Carson Wentz who could use a high-level receiver. Other than T.Y. Hilton, the Colts’ receivers are long on potential and lacking in true production. Hilton’s production has waned, too, including just 56 catches for 762 yards and five touchdowns last year. Not bad numbers, but the addition of Jones to Hilton would be a win for Wentz and a team seemingly in a win-now mode after making the playoffs in two of the last three years. Plus, general manager Chris Ballard has been bold in his trades before – between the Wentz deal this year and trading for DeForest Buckner a year ago.
Las Vegas: The Raiders don’t have the cap room some other teams do (just over $5.279 million), but Jon Gruden has never shied away from trying to land impact playmakers. And Jones is that. There’s also a lot of youth in that receiving corps, including potential standouts Bryan Edwards and Henry Ruggs III, and a player like Jones could add a No. 1 option, a mentor and a key piece to an offense that already has Darren Waller and Josh Jacobs. It’d be a fit for a team that has been improving under Gruden.