There’s necessary context for this story, but let’s drop in right at the moment Monday morning when Undisputed cohost Shannon Sharpe pulled his cell phone out of his pocket on live television, dialed Falcons receiver Julio Jones, and put him on speaker.
“I’m about to go meet up with my brother, what’s happening with you?” Jones said.
“Do you want to go to the Cowboys, Julio? Or do you want to stay in Atlanta?” Sharpe asked.
“Man, I’m out of there,” Jones responded.
“Ideally,” Sharpe asked, “Where would you like to go?”
“I want to win,” Jones answered.
“Well, don’t go to Dallas! You ain’t winning in Dallas, Julio!,” Sharpe said.
“You already know I know,” Jones said.
At that point, a nervous-sounding woman chimed in from off-camera: “Can you remind him we’re on television right now?”
It was fantastic television, aside from the dubious ethics involved if Jones did not know the conversation was being broadcast to a live audience. It was also an unfortunate sequence for the Dallas Cowboys, who are peripheral players (at best) in this story, but were implicated as losers anyway. The most consequential takeaway from Jones’s brief cameo is that it confirmed months of speculation that his time in Atlanta may be nearing an end. Soon after his Undisputed appearance, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported that Jones requested a trade “a few months ago.”
Jones’s availability on the trade market would be surprising were it not for Atlanta’s finances. Teams would usually not be so eager to deal their all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards, but the Falcons presently do not have enough salary cap space to sign their draft picks, and Jones comes with a $15.3 million guaranteed salary for next season.
Atlanta has already pushed significant salary from other players’ contracts into future years, making them difficult to trade or restructure further. Of the five biggest contracts on the team’s books—quarterback Matt Ryan, left tackle Jake Matthews, defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, Jones, and linebacker Deion Jones—all but Jarrett’s and Jones’s were restructured this offseason in ways that cleared cap room and increased the Falcons’ future financial commitments to those players. That leaves Jones and Jarrett as the two most eligible tradeable players. There’s logic in prioritizing trading Jones over Jarrett, too; Jones is 32 to Jarrett’s 28, has managed lingering foot issues stemming from a fracture he suffered in 2013, and the Falcons are better equipped to weather a loss at his position than they are on defense. New general manager Terry Fontenot said last month that given the team’s salary cap circumstances, he’d listen to trade calls on Jones despite holding him “in high regard.”
“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,” Fontenot said.
Figuring out what to do with Jones is a high-stakes example of the delicate balancing act that Atlanta is navigating between current and future needs. Do they improve the current roster or tear it down and start fresh under a new GM and first-year head coach Arthur Smith? The Falcons signaled their preference for the former in March when they restructured Ryan’s contract, freeing up cap space but effectively committing to him for the next two seasons. They did so again when they drafted tight end Kyle Pitts with the fourth pick in the draft rather than select Ryan’s successor. By passing on the chance to draft a quarterback with a top-five pick, Atlanta chose to invest in its present over the future. Ideally, that present would include Jones, who played only nine games last season but averaged 15 yards per reception and 86 yards per game, but the Falcons don’t want to restructure Jones’s contract in a way that would add to the salary cap in future years.
One of the revelations from Jones’s Undisputed appearance is that he apparently doesn’t feel as though the Falcons are ready to win at a high level in 2021. If Atlanta is at a crossroads, Jones isn’t confident in the team’s direction.
Presumably, when Jones said he wants to win, he meant he wants to compete for a Super Bowl, not just that he’d like to improve upon Atlanta’s 4-12 season in 2020. His remarks are at odds with Fontenot and Smith’s optimistic outlook for the roster, much of which is rooted in what Ryan could do in Smith’s system, which has some important overlap with the Kyle Shanahan–designed offense Ryan operated during his 2016 MVP-winning season. The most significant feature is a reliance on play-action passing, which Ryan excels at and which Smith’s Titans’ offense gained more yards off of than any other team last season. Losing Jones would be a blow, but there are potent offensive threats in Calvin Ridley and Pitts (the latter is already Pro Football Focus’s fourth-ranked tight end in the league despite not playing an NFL snap). The emphasis on play-action should also help take some pressure off Atlanta’s offensive line, which would be welcome; through the past two seasons, under head coach Dan Quinn and offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, Ryan was sacked 89 times in 31 games, behind only Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson.
The Falcons have been a sub-.500 team for the past three seasons, so there’s reason to understand Jones’s apparent pessimism, too. But Ryan has thrown for at least 4,000 yards with a completion rate of 65 percent or better every year since 2012. He’s a legitimate top-10 quarterback, and in this sport, having a player of that caliber is the smoothest pathway to a quick turnaround.
According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Atlanta is asking for a first-round draft pick in return for Jones, which seems steep given his age, contract, and the limited number of suitors for him. The Falcons are reluctant to trade Jones without a significant return and have made it clear they’re not having a fire sale. But Atlanta’s financial constraints, more than Fontenot and Smith’s belief in the current roster, might dictate their course of action, and Jones might end up getting his wish.