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Julio Jones Isn’t Running On Empty

It’s a bit of an understatement to say the relationship between Julio Jones and the Atlanta Falcons is strained. After Jones told Shannon Sharpe, “I’m out of there … I want to win,” on live TV last week, it’s probably fair to characterize the 10-year partnership as just about doomed. Reports indicate that the superstar receiver has been unhappy with the Falcons since his 2019 contract negotiations, and at least one journalist has said that Jones thinks Matt Ryan has lost his fastball. These aren’t the statements of a player expecting to stick around for another year. 

To be fair, it’s not as if Atlanta is pining for Jones to stay, either. The Falcons have been telegraphing their desire to trade Jones since new GM Terry Fontenot took over in January. Fontenot inherited a salary cap mess from his predecessor, Thomas Dimitroff, and Atlanta remains just $337,851 under the cap after restructuring Ryan’s deal this offseason. Still, by refusing to invest in youth at QB via the draft, Fontenot hasn’t done much to address the situation. By passing on Justin Fields in favor of tight end Kyle Pitts with the fourth pick, the Falcons signaled that they weren’t committing to a full rebuild — and yet by shopping Julio, they also aren’t committing to going all-in for a final “win now” push. Instead they’re somewhere in the mushy middle, firmly ensconced in salary cap hell, and Jones is the odd man out.

So perhaps the best wide receiver in the league looks extremely likely to move on from the only team he has ever known. And the first question any team that trades for Jones will need to answer is: Does he have anything left in the tank?

Since being selected No. 6 overall in 2011, Jones has been phenomenal, catching 848 targets for 12,896 receiving yards and 60 touchdowns. While age is always a concern in a sport as brutal on the body as football, the 32-year-old is one of just 25 wide receivers with at least 12,000 career receiving yards,1 and he got there very quickly. Despite missing large parts of two seasons to injury, Jones has averaged the most receiving yards per season (1,290) of the 25 — more than even the GOAT, Jerry Rice. Julio’s 10 seasons in Atlanta have been a model of sustained efficiency.

If Jones is in decline, it’s not showing up in these numbers. His first two seasons were his worst as a pro, averaging just over 2 yards per route run in 2011 and 2012, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group. But even those numbers were well above the league standard for receivers with similar workloads. From 2015 through 2018, Jones averaged more than 3 yards per route run, an elite level of receiving efficiency. And despite his injuries last year, Julio’s average of 2.7 yards per route run was nearly identical to the numbers he posted in his third and fourth years in the league, when he was just entering his prime.

What about speed? One of the traits that has made Jones so effective in the NFL is his raw footspeed. Defenders fear that speed, and because of that fear, intermediate breaking routes are often left open. But the 4.3-second 40-yard dash Jones ran at the NFL combine was a lifetime ago. He’s 10 years older now, and coming off injury. Perhaps we should expect some drop-off in his ability to threaten a defense deep.

One way to check is to look at Julio’s max speed on vertical routes2 by game over the past few years.

The hamstring injury that plagued him in 2020 did sap some of Jones’s long speed, but his best games were quite competitive with his largely healthy 2017 and 2018 campaigns. Last year, Julio was still able to reach top speeds in excess of 20 mph, well above the median NFL receiver on similar route types. Injury risk is real in football, particularly for players over 30, but there’s no clear evidence that Julio has lost a step.

For teams looking to acquire him, apart from the 2022 draft pick(s) a team will need to part with, Jones is actually fairly affordable. Julio’s cap hit in 2021 is $15.3 million, but it’s just $11.5 million in each of the following two years. According to Jason Fitzpatrick of Over the Cap, $17.3 million is guaranteed, and the total cost works out to an average per year of $12.8 million — right around what the New York Jets recently paid Corey Davis in free agency. 

Recent reports seem to suggest that Jones will want a new, restructured contract if a trade does occur. A new deal would negate the cheaper future years in Julio’s current contract, eliminating quite a bit of the appeal in trading for him. But if a sharp team were willing to deal for just one year of Julio, they could accomplish that via an extension with void years tacked onto the end — effectively making it a one-year deal. These “fake” contract years would serve to minimize the salary cap hit in 2021 and push it to 2022, when the cap will increase from $182.5 million to $208.2 million. Since there is no functional limit on the number of void years a team can write into a contract, Julio’s 2021 cap hit could be amortized over as many years as needed. For a team looking to win now, like the Tennessee Titans or Seattle Seahawks, this approach has a lot of potential benefits.

Julio’s time in Atlanta might be over, but he seems to have plenty left to offer an NFL team in need of a speedy, productive wide receiver. As the league’s signing season starts in earnest, the only question is where he’ll land.

Footnotes

  1. Twelve are in the Hall of Fame.

  2. Vertical routes are those that take the receiver in a mostly straight path up the field. They’re the best proxy for straight line speed in game situations with pads on.

Josh Hermsmeyer is a football writer and analyst.

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