Whatever you want to make of the impromptu interview Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones gave Shannon Sharpe on Monday, know this much: A line has apparently been drawn. Jones made it clear — after Sharpe called him during the live airing of the FS1 show Undisputed — that he has no desire to continue playing for the franchise that has employed him for the past 10 seasons. Jones’ exact words when Sharpe asked about Jones’ future: “I’m outta there.” We didn’t see Sharpe let Jones know their conversation was happening on national television until he was about to hang up, but if Jones didn’t realize he was on-air, the two of them can discuss that at a later date.
Jones has apparently been angling for an exit for some time; per NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport, Jones asked the franchise for a trade months ago, and the team has been willing to pursue one. When healthy, the 32-year-old Jones remains one of the best receivers in the NFL. The problem is, he battled through a lingering hamstring injury most of last season, and he’s going to count for $23 million against the salary cap (per Over The Cap) on one of the most financially challenged teams in the league (which is also why Jones isn’t likely to be traded until after June 1, as the Falcons could save $15 million by dealing him after that date).
To be honest, it’s nice to focus on another superstar searching for a new home who isn’t named Deshaun Watson or Aaron Rodgers. Jones also has a much better chance of being traded than either of those two disgruntled quarterbacks, as he told Sharpe that he just wants to play somewhere he can win.
The question is this: Who should want him the most? After all, Jones has produced a career worthy of a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame (848 career receptions, 12,896 yards and 60 touchdown catches), but he’s got a $15.3 million guaranteed salary this year, and the Falcons won’t just give him away.
Here’s this writer’s opinion regarding who should be in on the bidding:
NFL Network’s Mike Giardi reported the Patriots have discussed this possibility internally, as they should. Head coach Bill Belichick opened free agency as if he was engaging in a wild shopping spree on Amazon. The Patriots loaded up on several veterans in the hopes of giving quarterback Cam Newton — and, eventually, first-round pick Mac Jones — a better supporting cast to work with on offense. They found a couple tight ends (Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith) and a couple receivers (Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne). However, they didn’t sign one player on offense who brings the credentials that Jones offers.
Even last year, when Jones only appeared in nine games, he amassed over 130 receiving yards in three contests and had at least 90 in two others. The dude can still play. You also might remember the success Belichick enjoyed when he acquired Randy Moss in a trade with the Raiders 14 years ago. Moss arrived in New England in his 10th pro season, when he was supposed to be a rapidly declining talent. He wound up re-energizing his career and helping the Patriots nearly go undefeated in his first season with the franchise. Of course, Belichick stole Moss from the Raiders, as New England only gave up a fourth-round pick in that deal. Jones is going to cost quite a bit more.
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The Browns look like the biggest threat to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC currently. They’ve already made several impressive acquisitions this offseason, so they might as well go all in, especially as long as star quarterback Baker Mayfield is still operating on a rookie deal. The Browns have a few things working in their favor if they want to make a move like this. One is cap space. They’ve got nearly $21 million to play with, per Over The Cap, at the moment. The other benefit is roster flexibility. Cleveland already has two high-profile wide receivers on its roster — Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry — but Beckham only has one year of guaranteed money left on his deal, while Landry has none remaining in the final two years of his contract. The Browns also haven’t been afraid to add talented players to a crowded position (just look at how they made the combination of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt work at running back last season).
Now, there’s a valid argument to be made that Beckham and Landry offer more in the long run, because both are turning 29 this season. And it’s true that Cleveland needs to start signing younger stars like Chubb and Mayfield to long-term extensions in the near future. But let’s not ignore the fact that Cleveland’s window to win a championship is open right now, and they have to find a way to get past Kansas City. Remember, the Chiefs looked like a team that was overdoing it when they gave injury-plagued receiver Sammy Watkins a three-year, $48 million deal in 2018. He stayed healthy long enough in the playoffs to be a difference-maker in their Super Bowl run a year later. Jones could do the same thing for the Browns.
The Colts need to be thinking about this deal for one, simple reason: Carson Wentz. They made the trade to acquire the quarterback from Philadelphia because they believe in his talent and the impact head coach Frank Reich can have on a player he once coached. The Colts already have a strong supporting cast, especially with second-year running back Jonathan Taylor and a sturdy offensive line in place. Just imagine what Jones could do for a passing attack that sorely needs to bring the deep ball back into the game plan. The Colts have a solid receiving corps — most notably Michael Pittman Jr. and nine-year veteran T.Y. Hilton — but the presence of Jones would take that group to another level. Jones also would benefit from all the play-action opportunities that exist in an offense with such an effective running game.
As for the Colts, they are in a great cap situation, as they have nearly $20.5 million to work with right now, but the Wentz deal does impact their draft capital (a 2022 second-round pick becomes a first-round pick to the Eagles if Wentz meets certain conditions, one of which involves him playing at least 75 percent of the offensive snaps). The bottom line is, the Colts already have taken one gamble with their attempt to revive Wentz’s career. Jones is definitely worth a second risk, for exactly the same reason the Browns should be thinking about him: This team isn’t getting past Kansas City without a serious amount of firepower at its disposal.
The 49ers would be higher on this list if they had more to offer. The trade that put them in position to draft quarterback Trey Lance third overall also sent two future first-round picks to Miami (in 2022 and 2023). A first-round pick seems pretty high for a player of Jones’ age, but if that is what is needed to pull him away from Atlanta, then the 49ers can’t really join this party. On the other hand, they should be interested if the price is more sensible. This is still a team that has several key pieces remaining from its loss to Kansas City in Super Bowl LIV. They’ve got $17.66 million in cap space and they’re about to have a quarterback operating on a rookie deal. Yes, the 49ers have two young, talented receivers in Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk. However, Jones is still more dangerous, and he also has a pretty good history with head coach Kyle Shanahan, which should count for plenty. Jones enjoyed his best professional season in 2015 (136 receptions, 1,871 yards) when Shanahan was the Falcons’ offensive coordinator. They reached the Super Bowl a year later and narrowly lost to New England Patriots in overtime.
Let’s also not forget that the 49ers have been extremely aggressive lately when it comes to building their roster. Along with that trade to draft Lance, they also just gave a six-year, $138.06 million contract to a 32-year-old Pro Bowl left tackle with his own history of injuries. The 49ers did that deal with Trent Williams because they wanted one of the league’s best pass-blockers to protect the blind side of Lance and current starter Jimmy Garoppolo. Finding a way to make room for Jones could do even more to help those quarterbacks feel good about their offense.
The Raiders are in this conversation because they’re one of the usual suspects when it comes to courting big-name veteran players. It was only two years ago that Las Vegas was giddy over the prospect of acquiring Antonio Brown from the Pittsburgh Steelers in a blockbuster offseason deal. We all know how that situation ended — Brown never played a game for that franchise after wearing out his welcome with a combination of aching feet, helmet complaints and straight-up insubordination — but don’t for a minute think that head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock have lost their nerve for acquiring disgruntled stars. The Raiders could use a receiver like Jones for the same reason the Browns and Colts could: He would give them a better chance of beating the Chiefs.
The Raiders actually did beat Kansas City last year (and nearly pulled that feat off twice) because quarterback Derek Carr had some dangerous weapons downfield, including wide receiver Henry Ruggs and Pro Bowl tight end Darren Waller. The Raiders signed speedy veteran John Brown in free agency to replace Nelson Agholor, but again, Julio Jones is Julio Jones. Of all the teams on this list, the Raiders have the worst cap space situation (just over $6 million), but they have plenty of draft capital to offer. They also haven’t been reluctant to make wild moves this offseason, whether that’s breaking up the core of a strong offensive line or using a first-round pick on an offensive tackle who was widely regarded as a player who could’ve been selected in a later round (Alex Leatherwood). The Raiders do things their own way. If they want Jones badly enough, they’ll make it happen.
Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter.
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