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Unlike Aaron Rodgers’ spring standoff with the Green Bay Packers, which could meander toward one of a variety of endgames, Julio Jones’ departure from the Atlanta Falcons this offseason seems imminent.
Jones already publicly revealed “I’m out of there, man,” after getting a cold call from Fox Sports’ Shannon Sharpe, while the Falcons continue to be asphyxiated by their salary cap, the team currently with less than $340,000 of space – a league low, per Over The Cap, and an insufficient amount to sign their nine-man rookie class.
Trading Jones is easier since we’ve passed June 1, Atlanta now able to defer $15.5 million of the $23.3 million dead money charge that will result by moving him. Yet the Falcons, obviously seeking the best offer possible for a seven-time Pro Bowler, probably also don’t have to find resolution before training camp if they’re not satisfied with their options.
Jones’ name has already been connected to quite a few teams: the Patriots, Ravens, Titans, 49ers and even Packers – what better silver bullet to end the Rodgers stalemate? – among the most prominent.
But just because a receiver of Jones’ caliber would conceivably improve any team – his career average of 95.5 receiving yards per game is nearly 10 better than anyone else in NFL history – that doesn’t mean all (or even many) of the league’s other 31 clubs are viable trade partners.
Who could seriously contend in the Free Julio Sweepstakes? Let’s break it down:
NFC South rivals need not apply (3)
The Falcons may find themselves backed into a corner, but that surely doesn’t mean they’ll send Jones to the Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints or Tampa Bay Buccaneers and risk having to defend him twice a year. (FWIW, the Panthers are the only one of the trio that could make a deal work financially anyway, but more on that next …)
Scant cap space (14)
In addition to the Bucs and Saints, the following teams currently have less than $10 million in cap space: Baltimore Ravens, Dallas Cowboys, Miami Dolphins, Houston Texans, Chicago Bears, Kansas City Chiefs, Pittsburgh Steelers, Seattle Seahawks, Los Angeles Rams, Green Bay Packers, Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants, Las Vegas Raiders and Tennessee Titans.
Could a team create sufficient wiggle room to acquire Jones? The answer is obviously yes, but it’s hardly an easy hurdle to clear: His base salary for 2021 is $15.3 million, which is already guaranteed. But since there’s been some speculation about Jones joining some of these clubs, let’s look more closely at a few.
► Ravens: Of the teams below the $10 million threshold, they have the most available funds – $9.8 million, per Over The Cap. Baltimore also isn’t afraid to make bold moves to further its cause and could seemingly benefit from an established No. 1 receiver. Yet the Ravens also need to do an extension for QB Lamar Jackson … a player who’s run an offense that’s attempted the fewest passes in the league each of the past two seasons. Jones might want to win, but he’ll also want his targets.
► Bears: Be nice to give QB Andy Dalton (or rookie Justin Fields) a bona fide tandem of Jones and Allen Robinson – and extending Robinson rather than pay him a $17.9 million franchise tag could give this team more than the $8.4 million cushion it currently has. Of course, by moving up for Fields in Round 1, Chicago has already surrendered next year’s first- and fourth-round picks – making the Bears a suboptimal trade partner.
► Packers: Yes, teaming Jones with All-Pro WR Davante Adams might be a gambit that quickly motivates Rodgers to return. But here’s the reality check – Green Bay has less than $7 million cap-wise and is already creatively structuring low-end contracts to make more room … which may ultimately be needed to financially entice Rodgers himself. Also worth noting: Adams is slated to be a free agent after this season.
► Titans: WR A.J. Brown’s recruiting pitch was cute – though he’s apparently unwilling to surrender Jones’ familiar No. 11 jersey. And, per reports, Tennessee is among the most interested teams. But, like Baltimore, this isn’t an offense where Jones is likely to see his usual volume of touches given how much RB Derrick Henry totes the rock. Far more topical, Henry, QB Ryan Tannehill and/or others would need to restructure their deals for a team that doesn’t even have $3.5 million banked.
Jones also told Sharpe, “I want to win.” The Falcons aren’t obligated to send him to the best situation, though – again – Jones’ presence would instantly make any offense better. Still, though teams like the Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Jets and Detroit Lions are devoid of a dominant receiver, none of those rosters seem like they’re one player away or likely to be serious Super Bowl contenders before 2023 – at the earliest. Hard to square why they’d seek an expensive, 32-year-old receiver who’s already endured a lot of punishment and unlikely to still be elite when these clubs would truly need him.
Set at receiver (3)
The Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns and Minnesota Vikings are in good shape at wideout, the Bengals and Vikings with obvious defensive deficiencies that should be resourced by their cap space if opportunities arise. It’s easier to make a case for Jones to the Browns, but a run-oriented team that features WRs Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry plus a trio of tight ends doesn’t seem like a great fit for Jones … at least as long as OBJ is there.
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Waiting on a QB (2)
Neither the Denver Broncos nor Washington Football Team have an All-Pro receiving threat – but is that a personnel issue, or more a function of each club’s unsettled quarterback room? Terry McLaurin, Curtis Samuel, Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, Logan Thomas and Noah Fant are all capable pass catchers who are among the reasons either of these squads could be in the 2021 playoff field. But both teams would probably be wise to hang on to their draft capital and cap space in the event the Packers eventually dangle Rodgers, if not the pursuit of a passing upgrade during next year’s draft of free agency.
Logical destinations? (6)
This process-of-elimination exercise nearing completion, we’re left with a half-dozen teams that might have the most compelling cases to pursue Jones – though none necessarily offers a hand-in-glove fit in terms of consummating a deal with Atlanta.
Los Angeles Chargers: Ben Roethlisberger, Russell Wilson and Patrick Mahomes all won Super Bowls in their second season as a starting quarterback. So why not Justin Herbert, the Bolts’ reigning offensive rookie of the year? First, he needs his team to avoid the catastrophic injuries and luck that tend to doom the Chargers. Rookie head coach Brandon Staley also must make a seamless transition into his new role. But perhaps most of all, this team needs the firepower to keep pace with Mahomes’ Chiefs in the AFC West. Keenan Allen and Mike Williams form a fine receiving tandem, but imagine adding Jones to the mix for an offense that lost TE Hunter Henry and didn’t have a 1,000-yard receiver in 2020 despite Herbert’s huge year and Allen’s 100 receptions. The Bolts have the cap space to comfortably absorb Jones’ salary and would preemptively solve a downstream problem given Williams’ contract expires after this season. But would a team that’s made at least one first-round pick every year since 2001 and doesn’t historically make splashy trades be willing to give Atlanta sufficient compensation?
Arizona Cardinals: They’ve already added two members of the vaunted 2011 draft (DE J.J. Watt and WR A.J. Green) this offseason, so why not go after Jones, too? GM Steve Keim and coach Kliff Kingsbury could already be on warm seats considering the Cards’ five-season playoff drought is the NFC’s longest and probably should’ve been snapped last year after the team started 6-3 before finishing 8-8. Jones and DeAndre Hopkins would instantly form the league’s most lethal wideout tandem, forcing defenses into a terrible choice of poison while allowing Green, Christian Kirk and rookie Rondale Moore to prey on overmatched corners. Arizona would have to free up a couple million on the cap front while determining if Jones is the last variable to solving their playoff equation. But given the way roster stacking escalates in the NFC West, this could be a necessary stroke.
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Buffalo Bills: Last season’s 14-point loss in the AFC title game, which Kansas City finished on a 38-15 blitz, suggests the Bills are at least one player away from taking control of the conference. WR Stefon Diggs had an All-Pro breakout in his first year with Buffalo but remains the only prime weapon at QB Josh Allen’s disposal. Adding Jones would render this team’s solid group of secondary receivers more dangerous while providing extra leeway to a team that was average defensively last year. The Bills would need to find additional money to take on Jones’ contract while determining how that might impact their ability to get a long-term extension done with MVP runner-up Allen. But for a team that appears just about Super Bowl-caliber, it could be a gamble worth taking.
San Francisco 49ers: Jones is among the most productive players in league history, averaging nearly 1,300 receiving yards per season during his 10-year career despite missing 25 games. Yet his pair of All-Pro campaigns coincided with Kyle Shanahan’s two-year stint as the Falcons offensive coordinator in 2015 and ’16. (In 2015, Jones’ 1,871 receiving yards represented the second-highest total in NFL history.) The Niners have a superstar tight end in George Kittle, but neither Brandon Aiyuk nor Deebo Samuel is (currently) a polished No. 1 wideout. Whether as the missing piece to a core that nearly won the Super Bowl following the 2019 season with QB Jimmy Garoppolo at the helm, or a guy who could instantly erase mistakes for rookie QB Trey Lance, Jones could be an obvious asset to a team perched for a major resurgence in 2021. The primary issue might be trade value, however, given the Niners don’t have a first-round pick to offer before 2024 after giving up the farm to get Lance.
New England Patriots: Despite an aggressive flurry of moves in free agency that significantly raised the bar for an offense that ranked 27th in yards and points last season, there’s still no difference maker anywhere near Jones’ caliber – nor has there been one here at his position since Randy Moss was traded in 2010. But similar to San Francisco’s situation, Jones could be a boon to a veteran quarterback (Cam Newton) or a young passer (Mac Jones) who needs someone to lean on while managing games. And if you’re Jones, if you couldn’t beat the team that handed you the most bitter loss of your career in Super Bowl 51, why not join?
Indianapolis Colts: They might represent the best fit, featuring a balanced but potent offense, but one devoid of a transcendent receiver. Jones is certainly that and could allow T.Y. Hilton and Michael Pittman Jr. to slide into complementary roles for an attack that’s likely to revolve around the run. And what better way to rebuild newly acquired QB Carson Wentz’s confidence than by giving him a reliable target who should fit fairly effortlessly into the Colts’ salary structure – Indianapolis is projected to have the most cap space in the league in 2022, though needs to extend All-Pros Quenton Nelson and Darius Leonard. The major sticking point could be striking a price point with the Falcons given the Colts won’t know until after this season whether they’ll be surrendering next year’s first- or second-round draft pick, depending on how much Wentz plays. Trade contingencies for a player of Jones’ caliber aren’t ideal, but presumably GM Chris Ballard and Atlanta counterpart Terry Fontenot could hammer something out.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.