When Jerry Rice was the same age as Julio Jones is now, all he had left in the tank was 11 seasons, five Pro Bowl nods, three appearances on the first-team all-pro roster, and 841 catches for 11,119 yards and 79 touchdowns.
Of course, no receiver is anything like Jerry Rice. Not in the decades before he played, or in the 17 years since he retired. But damn, wasn’t Julio Jones supposed to at least be close to that? Or as close as any wide receiver could hope to be?
With so many quarterbacks reportedly looking to play elsewhere this offseason, it has been easy to lose sight of the fact that the Falcons are almost certain to trade the 32-year-old Jones as soon as they get the best offer that they’re going to get for him. One would assume that if Atlanta was able to steal a second round pick from the Patriots in exchange for Mohamed Sanu not too long ago, that Jones would command at least thirty first round picks (if all things were equal) in exchange for his services.
Or at least, one first round pick.
But instead of treating Jones like a “Jerry Rice type” who has plenty left to give in his 30s, many media members have erred on the side of caution that he might be more of an “A.J. Green,” the receiver taken two slots ahead of him in the 2011 draft. Green was a ghostly addition to the Cardinals roster this offseason — is he there or is it just a mirage in the desert? — and it didn’t cost Arizona much to acquire him in free agency. Even then, people say that they overpaid. And that might be right.
However, there aren’t many comparisons between Jones and Green outside of their draft class or the seven career Pro Bowl appearances since.
Green’s last 1,000-yard campaign was in 2017. His last season as a “number one” was probably 2015. And his last really dominant campaign was 2013, if he ever had one.
It’s only been two years since Jones had 99 catches for 1,394 yards — in only 15 games — and it was as recently as 2018 that he led the NFL with 1,677 yards. Even last season, Jones had 51 catches for 771 yards in nine games and his 11.3 yards per target was a career-high, as well as ranking third overall among qualified receivers. Jones averaged more yards per game last season than Tyreek Hill, DK Metcalf, George Kittle, and A.J. Brown.
The only reason that the Falcons are even entertaining a trade is the salary cap.
When people talk about the Rams being in “salary cap hell,” they’re referring to a circle of the underworld that pales in comparison to the nightmare that Atlanta is currently suffering inside of: the Falcons have about $400k in space and need to sign their rookies, including Kyle Pitts.
Jones has a fully-guaranteed base salary of $15.3 million and trading him after June 1 would save the Falcons that same amount against the 2021 cap. In an unfortunate situation, dealing Jones makes sense for Atlanta. But they won’t trade him until the offers make sense too.
Over at The Athletic, writers for the Patriots, 49ers, and Ravens predictably made low-ball offers for Jones, and unsurprisingly, Falcons writer Jeff Schultz balked at all of them.
New England writer Jeff Howe not only underwhelmed with an offer of a conditional second round pick (if Jones plays in 15 games, otherwise its a third), but he also hoped to unload disappointing former first rounder N’Keal Harry, as if that would be a favor to Atlanta. (Harry’s 5.1 yards per target since entering the NFL in 2019 ranks 148th out of 154 players with at least 80 targets, and the only wide receiver ranked below him is Green.)
Baltimore’s Jeff Zrebiec tried to pry away Jones with an offer of a second and a fourth, plus Miles Boykin. Two years after being a third round pick, Boykin has 32 catches for 464 yards over 32 games. I guess at least he’s a better option than Harry.
Finally, San Francisco beat writer David Lombardi made a long pitch to acquire Jones for a conditional second round pick in 2022 (if he plays in 12 games), and a 2023 third rounder.
Again, Julio Jones is still one of the best wide receivers in the NFL. He missed seven games last season because of a nagging hamstring injury — which of course can’t be ignored — but nothing else would suggest that he can’t still be dominant. Consider that in the last two seasons, Jones is third in yards per game, after Michael Thomas and Davante Adams. And he’s played in more games than Thomas in that time. He’s only played in two fewer games than Adams.
Over the last two seasons, Jones has caught 150 passes on 225 targets for 14.4 yards per catch over 24 games.
In that same time, Chris Godwin has caught 151 passes on 205 targets for 14.4 yards per catch over 26 games.
And the offers for Julio Jones are conditional second round picks and receiver castoffs? I don’t quite see how that makes sense, even accounting for salary. The Falcons are on the hook for Jones’ bonus money, but the acquiring team would get a reasonable discount for his services. Jones has a fully-guaranteed base salary in 2021, but his salary is $11.5 million in 2022 and 2023.
Perhaps Jones will want to renegotiate with a new team, but the acquiring team would have plenty of leverage and a ~$12 million salary for a receiver of his caliber is a bargain. Consider that in 2021, Jamison Crowder’s cap hit is $11.3 million and Robby Anderson’s is $12 million. The newly-signed contract for Corey Davis pays him $12.6 million. A 32-year-old Julio Jones is likely better than Davis, Crowder, or Anderson at any age.
So the offers for Jones will have to improve, you’d think.
Could that offer come from an NFC West team?
Despite trading for DeAndre Hopkins in 2020, signing Green and drafting Rondale Moore in 2021, the Arizona Cardinals could be a player for Jones. Hopkins made a since-deleted tweet implying that he would restructure his deal if the Cards made a move to acquire Jones. Arizona has $10.6 in cap space, according to OvertheCap.com, putting them in fighting range for Jones’ services.
Julio Jones + DeAndre Hopkins?— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 21, 2021
We also know that the Cardinals aren’t afraid to make big deals (see: Hopkins), aren’t bothered by age concerns (see: J.J. Watt, Rodney Hudson, Green), and likely still the fourth-best team in the NFC West. Giving Kyler Murray another weapon wouldn’t even be overkill. It’s probably necessary, as Hopkins is the only weapon at any skill position on the roster who is probable to perform at a high level next season.
Arizona GM Steve Keim dealing for Jones would also keep him out of the hands of the San Francisco 49ers, a team that might be even more likely to “go for it.”
The 49ers have $10.8 million in effective cap space and a clear path towards more room in the form of Jimmy Garoppolo’s non-guaranteed $24.1 million salary. Kyle Shanahan also has a previous working relationship with Jones (career-highs of 136 catches and 1,871 yards in 2015 with Shanahan as the OC) and general manager John Lynch is probably feeling the pressure to prove that the team was right in moving up for Trey Lance.
That deal for Lance hinders the Niners’ chances of having ammo for Jones, but perhaps they could swing a three-team deal that includes Garoppolo going to a QB-needy franchise.
And as much as I’m sure Russell Wilson would like them to be, I don’t believe the Seahawks will be players involved for Jones. Though Seattle has consistently come swinging with surprising trades for veteran stars in many post-June deals of past— Jadeveon Clowney, Jamal Adams, Sheldon Richardson, to name a few — they aren’t in a much different position than the LA Rams are right now. Not only do they lack the cap space, but their second round receiver picks should end “the need” for now.
Though Moore was a second rounder for Arizona, I’m skeptical that Green will provide help to the Cardinals next season. He’s like DeSean Jackson in that regard, but Jackson isn’t LA’s number two option.
I wouldn’t dare predict that Jones will have a post-30 career anything like Rice, but not many players in the history of football have come as close to Rice in his pre-30 days as Jones managed to do. Giving proper time and consideration to where Jones is at right now in his career is what clears up the fact that even if the Falcons have to deal him, they’ll do whatever it takes to not deal him. At least, not for a conditional second round pick.
Could an NFC West team be the franchise that finally “wows” Atlanta and will the Rams be able to step in before it happens? How much would the Cardinals or 49ers adding Jones change your outlook on the NFC West?