The Atlanta Falcons have not made the announcement, but Julio Jones seems to be out of the picture for 2021 in every sense of the phrase. The NFL team is preparing fans for the inevitable, namely that one of the most consistently dangerous receivers in the league no longer fits in their plans because he no longer fits into their salary cap.
Yes, it’s possible the Falcons can pull off a move between now and Labor Day that allows them to keep Jones. But the more likely scenario is that they let him go in a trade.
Julio Jones was MIA when the Atlanta Falcons announced their schedule
NFL teams make a big deal of announcing their schedule each spring. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers tweeted a video this week of Rob Gronkowski reading their schedule and ad-libbing comments on each game. The Cincinnati Bengals prepared a social media video adorned with trading cards of great players in team history.
The Falcons created wallpaper images for fans to download. One of them contained pictures of half a dozen Atlanta players in uniform, including Matt Ryan and A.J. Terrell. Jones was nowhere to be seen. Considering that the Falcons went 4-12 in 2020, and even factoring in that Jones missed seven games, implying he isn’t one of their six best players doesn’t make sense.
Jones has made 848 catches in 135 regular-season games, averaging 15.2 yards per reception and scoring 60 touchdowns. He’s led the league in receiving yards per game three times and earned first-team All-Pro recognition twice. Throw in his 61 catches and six TDs in just eight playoff games, and what you have is a quarterback’s dream.
Ryan’s dream seems destined to become a nightmare.
The Falcons are preparing for the worst
Leaving Jones out of the schedule announcement was no mistake. Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot admitted before the draft that he was open to the idea of trading the receiver, though he wasn’t initiating any talks.
“We are in a difficult cap situation, that’s just the circumstance and it’s not a surprise for us,” Fontenot told WAGA-TV. “We knew the circumstance we were in. Our administration has done an excellent job up to this point getting us in a position to be able to manage the cap, and yet we still have more work to do.”
That work might ultimately conclude with explaining to fans why Ryan will nor longer be throwing to the franchise’s all-time leader in catches and yards.
How did things get so bad for Atlanta?
The combination of aggressive spending the past few seasons and the lowering of the 2021 salary cap because of the pandemic has placed the Falcons in a tough spot.
According to OverTheCap.com, the team has a league-low 67 players under contract and is within half a million dollars of maxing out its salary cap. That’s not even enough to sign the Falcons’ recent draft choices, and there aren’t many veteran contracts that they can restructure to free up meaningful money.
The Falcons can trade Jones after June 1 to net close to $8 million in additional cap space because their remaining liability on the three-year, $66 million extension he signed in 2019 spreads over two years instead of one.
There are perhaps half a dozen teams with enough cap space to accommodate Jones’ contract comfortably. Two of them are the Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets, both employing rookie quarterbacks who could use a veteran wideout. On the other hand, Ryan probably noticed that the only receiver the Falcons drafted last month was Frank Darby, a sixth-rounder out of Arizona State.
Trading Jones this summer won’t net Atlanta another high-end receiver or just about any other affordable starter. The best they can hope for is a couple of draft picks, though a first-rounder for a 10-year veteran is too much to ask.
All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference.