The relationship between the Atlanta Falcons and Julio Jones is falling apart. It’s fixable — we’re not looking at piecing together Humpty Dumpty.
Money should solve most of their issues. And Jones should do everything within his power to get that money.
Most recently, Jones has refused to show up for training camp to leverage for contract negotiations. Yes, a holdout.
If Jones holds out through Week 1, he’ll lose almost $2.5 million. However, if he gets paid at the end of that period (and makes $17.5 million per year for three years), he’ll make $18.1 million above his current salary. In other words, he’ll get a three-year, $52.5 million deal, which will net $15.6 million in new money, considering what he’ll lose in fines and gain in new money with a new contract. That would also make him the highest-paid receiver per year.
Getting to that point will be complicated — and likely combative.
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The biggest blow to the relationship between Jones and the Falcons may have been a pair of events that they had zero control over — events to which they were only indirectly connected. The Kansas City Chiefs signed Sammy Watkins for three years, $48 million. The Los Angeles Rams gave Brandin Cooks an extension which game him $80 in new money.
Roughly a month after Watkins’ new deal went to ink, Jones began to “purge” his social media channels by unfollowing Falcons and removing a number of photos associated with his team.
No big deal right? Well, it was — because he wanted the big deal.
Jones is currently the eighth-highest paid receiver in the NFL. An argument could be made that he’s the best receiver in the NFL, though he’s definitely a top-five receiver without argument. He should also continue to be for the next three years.
The Falcons then got themselves a piece of leverage. They drafted Alabama receiver Calvin Ridley in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Ridley may not factor into Jones’ negotiations this year, but Atlanta can use him as leverage in future years. After all, Jones signed his deal three years ago at five years and $71 million. He’s already asking for another. What’s stopping him from pulling a Rob Gronkowski, who has asked for a restructured contract during the last two offseasons? If the Falcons just sweeten Jones’ deal for 2018, then he might ask for more again at the beginning of 2019. At that point, the Falcons may have more leverage with Ridley.
At the very least, Atlanta is making a shrewd move. Jones is 29, and likely focused on making the most money he can before retirement (because that’s what every player should be doing). They need to prepare for his eventual departure — Ridley helps them do that. That is consideration as Jones tries to cash before (or during) this season.
But even with the Falcons getting as much ammunition as possible, they’re going to begin losing it as the offseason shifts into preseason. They will begin looking to the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 1, the Carolina Panthers in Week 2 and the New Orleans Saints in Week 3. Those are all very losable games — even without the team’s top receiving option. If they fall into the 0-3 hole, they are screwed.
While Ridley might be a nice piece in future years, his odds of producing in Week 1 are low (see: practically every first-round receiver for the last three years). Falcons receiver Mo Sanu isn’t on the verge of blowing up — tight end Austin Hooper probably isn’t either. They may be loaded at running back, but the Falcons aren’t equipped with many options at receiver or tight end.
As they sit down to game plan, the coaches will realize they’re doing so with their arms tied behind their back. Dan Quinn will probably mention something to general manager Thomas Dimitroff. The Falcons might play in Week 1 without Jones, and might lose handily. That would set Jones up nicely to earn a new deal at a net positive.
He’d be taking an enormous risk. He’d irk the franchise. But in the NFL, players have little power. A generational talent like Jones should flex as much of the leverage as he’s got. Unlike the contract situation with Le’Veon Bell and the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Falcons aren’t yet built to withstand the loss of Jones. He should stay off the field to force the Falcons to realize their offense will be a mess without him.