Julio Jones Trade Overview & Impact
After weeks of rampant speculation, the previously unfathomable has once again happened out of nowhere in the NFL. Star wide receiver Julio Jones has been traded from the Atlanta Falcons to the Tennessee Titans in exchange for a 2022 second-round draft pick and a 2023 fourth-round selection. In addition to Jones, the Falcons are sending a 2023 sixth-round pick to the Titans.
After social media campaigning from various players around the league (including Titans wide receiver A.J. Brown), Atlanta traded Jones to Tennessee primarily for salary cap relief (and likely to keep him out of the NFC). The Titans will inherit the full contract and are on the hook for his fully guaranteed $15.3 million salary & a $23.5 million cap charge in 2021.
The New England Patriots, San Francisco 49ers, Los Angeles Rams, and Seattle Seahawks were all considered legitimate suitors for Jones at various points. He had made it clear he wanted to play for a competitive team, going so far as to state he wanted to play with a “big-armed QB that can deliver the deep ball” (via ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler).
One of the great players of the 2010s, Jones still has a lot left in the tank despite being 32 years old. He had at least 1,394 yards in every season from 2014-2019, missing just four games in that six-year span. A lingering hamstring injury in 2020 limited him to just nine games during which he managed to average over 85 receiving yards per contest 2020.
Beyond Jones, the trade has implications for the future of the Titans and Falcons franchises as well as a host of players on either team. Below, I take a look at the significant ripple effects of this trade.
What does this trade mean for the Tennessee Titans?
This was an offseason of change for the Tennessee Titans as they finished 11-5 in 2020 and won the AFC South but suffered a disappointing loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the Wild Card round. Arthur Smith, the offensive coordinator in 2019 & 2020, was hired by the Atlanta Falcons as their latest head coach. Tennessee also saw the departure of wide receivers Corey Davis and Adam Humphries as well as that of tight end Jonnu Smith in free agency, offsetting these losses with just the signing Josh Reynolds.
The biggest offseason narrative for the Titans was the lack of receiving options and who would absorb the 224 vacated targets left behind by the free agent departures. With Jones in the mix, the Titans not only have an elite option to do so but have raised their overall ceiling. The weapons in the passing game will afford them an opportunity to keep up with offensive juggernauts in the AFC playoffs as Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs await all challengers. If first-year offensive coordinator Todd Downing can properly utilize the offensive talent, Tennessee is a real threat to Kansas City’s reign of terror in the AFC.
The Titans most impacted by this trade are…
QB Ryan Tannehill: After a remarkable career resurgence in Tennessee, the Tannehill fairy tale has an exciting new chapter. Tannehill has been an efficient, if unspectacular, quarterback for the Titans over the past two seasons with an average completion percentage of 67.3% and a 110.6 QB rating. With an upper echelon receiving duo, his ceiling is now that of a top-10 quarterback with historical red zone passing efficiency. He must take the next step up for the Titans to be legitimate Super Bowl contenders, and they’ve given him every resource to do just that.
WR A.J. Brown: Along with a personal victory as Brown now gets to play with one of his idols in Jones, Brown’s on the field prospects get a boost. Though any narrative that Brown would have struggled with double teams is overblown (he remains one of the most physically gifted receivers in the NFL), a decreased lack of defensive attention will be a gift for him. After back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons to begin his career, look for Brown to easily tack on a third to the beginning of an elite career.
RB Derrick Henry: Already one of the most dominant runners in the NFL and fresh off of a 2,027 yard and 17 touchdown season, Henry is one of the biggest winners of the Jones trade. According to PFF, he led the league in rushing yards against stacked boxes (eight or more defenders) in 2019 and 2020 as defenses keyed on the Titans run game to no avail. With multiple superstar wide receivers for defenses to account for, expect King Henry to retain his spot upon the throne in 2021.
WR Josh Reynolds: Signing a one year, $1.75 million contract with Tennessee in free agency, Reynolds was expected to be the primary beneficiary of the departures of Davis and Smith. Relegated to the third passing option in this offense, Reynolds figures to retain his role in the slot and benefit from defensive attention to Brown and Jones. His role projects to be similar to how he was used in Los Angeles alongside Cooper Kupp & Robert Woods.
WR Dez Fitzpatrick: A fourth-round rookie out of Louisville, Fitzpatrick remains largely unaffected by this trade. It was expected he would need one to two seasons to develop into an NFL-caliber receiver, and the Jones trade does little to alter this timeline. Fitzpatrick remains a post-Jones receiving option for the Titans.
TE Anthony Firkser: Expected to fill some of the vacated targets, Firkser now likely slots in as the fourth option in what will remain a lower volume passing game. While he will present a target over the middle of the field and in the red zone, he largely becomes an afterthought in this offense.
What does this trade mean for the Atlanta Falcons?
Though a Jones trade had felt inevitable over the past few weeks, it doesn’t make it any more palatable for the Falcons and their fans. Jones had been the best player on the team for an entire generation of fans and the manner of his departure was painful all around. The Falcons are a team in limbo, as their restructure of quarterback Matt Ryan’s contract in March appeared to signal an attempt to remain a competitive team. However, the state of the defense and the trade of Jones present two big obstacles to that lofty goal.
Atlanta’s offensive vision in 2021 will be driven by head coach Arthur Smith as well as new offensive coordinator Dave Ragone who was the passing game coordinator for the Chicago Bears in 2020. The Titans had the third-fewest percentage of passing plays in 2020, while the Bears had the sixth-most. It will be interesting to see what the vision is for the Falcons offense and how the weapons are used, as many unknowns remain.
The Falcons most impacted by this trade are…
QB Matt Ryan: By far the biggest loser in the Jones trade, Ryan loses his safety net, top wide receiver, and the most dominant statistical producer of his career. A shift to a more efficient play-action offense under Smith & Ragone (instead of former offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter’s “Air-Raid” offense) should help compensate for the loss of Jones. If Ryan can develop chemistry with top rookie selection Kyle Pitts, the Falcons offense may not have to take a large step back from last season.
WR Calvin Ridley: Taking on the mantle of Atlanta’s top wide receiver in 2020, Ridley is a rising star in the NFL. His average stat line in eight career games without Jones by his side (seven of which were in 2020) is seven catches for 107 yards, so he’s proven he can produce as the only alpha wide receiver. Ridley could feasibly lead the league in receiving yards in 2021 as Ryan peppers him with targets and is a dark horse for a first-team All-Pro selection.
WR Russell Gage: Though Gage is receiving hype for his potential role in a post-Julio world, the brakes need to be pumped. At this point in this career, we know what Gage is: a slot receiver that can be schemed into a big play every couple games. While he will likely see around the 109 targets he saw last year, his 10.9 yards per reception figure will likely come down as he works underneath more this season.
TE/OW Kyle Pitts: Rookie tight ends have a notoriously difficult time adjusting to the NFL, as being both a proficient receiver and blocker is very difficult. Pitts was one of the best prospects in the 2021 NFL Draft, and his “OW” label is a nod to his role as an offensive weapon – beyond just a normal tight end. Sliding in as Ryan’s second best receiving option, Pitts will be fed as many targets as he can handle. He will likely move all around the formation, and it would not be a surprise to see him receive a significant amount of snaps as an outside receiver.
TE Hayden Hurst: An afterthought for the past few months, Hurst has all of a sudden become relevant once again. In a contract year, he is the third best passing option on this team behind Ridley and Pitts. The Titans used the most 12 personnel (two tight ends, two wide receivers, and one running back) in 2020, and that philosophy should translate to Atlanta with Smith in charge. Hurst will get his fair share of targets and be an important cog in this passing game.