Should the Falcons Trade Julio Jones?

In this morning’s FMIA Peter King passed along that he would not be surprised if Julio Jones was traded with a note that the trade likely would not be finalized until June 2 which would allow the Falcons some much needed salary cap relief. Since then others have said there has been interest in a trade for Jones around the NFL. The Falcons are currently navigating their way through one of the worst salary cap situations in the NFL not just this year but also next year which should lead a lot of credence to these rumors.

It was really a tale of two very different contracts with Jones. The Falcons negotiated a strong contract in 2015 that averaged $14.25 million per season which was quickly surpassed in the market by inferior players. By 2019 Jones indicated he wanted a new contract despite having two years remaining on the old deal. Whether they misread the Falcons misread the market or were really just trying to make a star wide receiver happy they ended up signing him to a massive $22 million per year extension which has stood out as a bit of an outlier for the last two years.

Jones received $36 million in prorated money and a $27.6 million raise over the original terms of his 2015 contract that ran through 2020. The Falcons guaranteed $64 million dollars with full guarantees that would virtually run through the 2021 season. The contract made Jones un-cuttable through 2021- it would leave the Falcons with a $40.55 million cap charge- and virtually untradeable given their cap situation- his $23.25 million in dead money would be the same as keeping him on the team.

That leaves the June 2 as the only real option for the Falcons. By delaying  a trade until that time Atlanta can split that $23.25 million across two seasons. They would be charged $7.75 million on the cap this year, saving the team $15.3 million in cap space, and $15.5 million next year, which is about $3.7 million in savings for 2022.

When I discussed the Falcons on the podcast this offseason my thought was that the Falcons could not really support both Jones and Matt Ryan on the team for much longer. When the Falcons were desperate for cap savings this year it was notable that they restructured Ryan’s deal despite the future cap pain that would be incurred but they did not touch the contracts of Jones or defensive lineman Grady Jarrett. Not touching those contracts would always leave the team with a chance of a trade this year with an ability to create cap space in the summer if they did not trade the players.

While some may argue that given all the dead money in Jones’ deal that it makes more sense to hold onto him especially if no compensation will come until 2022, I think it makes far more sense to move on if they find the right package. Jones will be 32 this year and is coming off his worst season since 2013 as he dealt with injuries. His name value is still incredibly high and the contract so affordable for another team that they should be able to get a decent return. The fact that they would likely delay draft compensation until 2022 should only make the package stronger as teams will look at this as a “no payment, all reward” trade. You can’t guarantee any of that next year.

While Jones is certainly a legend in Atlanta they need to turn the page on this roster in the next year. Calvin Ridley is coming off a near 1,400 yard season as he took over the top duties in the passing game and is just 27. He will be looking for a lucrative extension and if you have to choose between the two players you need to choose the younger player especially if he grows with a young QB in the future.

The Falcons are also a team that does not have the cap space needed to sign their rookie class this year. They will be in the ballpark of $6 million over after rookie signings. That does not even account for the need for more money come September when the cap expands to the full roster and practice squad. Basically the team is $8-9 million in the hole right now. If the Falcons move Jones it fixes the issue for this year and helps them retain more flexibility for 2022. Restructuring his deal or that of another veteran does opposite for their long term health. Deferring any rookie costs to 2022 is also a help along with Jones’ split cap charges.

As for a team looking to acquire Jones it is very affordable. It is $15.3 million this year and $11.513 million in each of the next two years. Just $17.3 million is guaranteed so if things went really bad a team could walk away but at an average of $12.8 million a year even a diminished Jones would be reasonable value at that cost.

One of the lessons that I think we should be learning with some of these contracts is that the extension with two years remaining on a contract , especially for an older player or one at a position that breaks down, is often a mistake. If the Falcons trade Jones they will have paid him that extra $27.6 million just to complete his prior contract and not have him play a down for the team in the “new” contract years. Teams really need to weigh out the pros and cons of these mega deals and probably should really put in place policies of no negotiations until one year out for all players. It just makes it easier and avoids situations like this one.