Considering all angles of a potential Julio Jones-to-the-Titans trade

Rumors of Julio Jones being available for trade have been bubbling just under the surface of the NFL news landscape for months now, but during what appeared to be an unplanned — and maybe even unwitting — appearance on FS1’s Undisputed Monday morning, Jones let the cat out of the bag completely.

Shortly after that bombshell dropped live on air, multiple reporters came forward with the news that Jones had, in fact, requested a trade “a few months ago” and the team has been listening to offers ever since.

Jones wanting out and the Falcons choosing to trade the most iconic player in franchise history are two very different things, but momentum seems to be building towards Julio playing professional football outside of Atlanta for the first time in his career in 2021. The Falcons reportedly have been asking for a first round pick for their 32-year old superstar, but it seems like the market for Jones hasn’t produced anyone willing to meet them at that asking price to this point.

Let’s also note that while the Falcons are highly unlikely to actually move Jones until after June 1st for cap purposes, they certainly could agree to terms with a team prior to that date. However, from Atlanta’s standpoint it makes some sense to keep their options open and hope that someone gets desperate.

The Titans have been loosely connected to the Julio Jones market a couple times. First, it was Peter King name dropping them as a “guess” for who might be interested based on their need for wide receiver help. Others have thrown their name out since, but there have been no concrete connections of verified interest from the Tennessee front office. The teams most firmly connected to Jones so far have been the Patriots, Raiders, and Ravens. All three have been credibly linked to at least having internal discussions about a trade for Julio, with the Ravens having made an offer prior to the draft according to Jay Glazer.

We do now have a report that Julio has interest in Tennessee as Chris Simms reported that Jones “has his eyes on the Titans and Patriots”. Where Julio wants to land is completely secondary to where the Falcons want to trade him, but it can’t be a bad thing to be one of his preferred destinations.

However, it would certainly make sense for the Titans to be interested. They have a clear need at wide receiver and have been a contender in the AFC ever since Ryan Tannehill took over at quarterback. But trading for Jones does come with some risks. We will break down every angle of a potential Julio-to-Tennessee trade here:

Can the Titans even afford Julio Jones’ contract?

The short answer is yes, but a longer answer will provide important context to the discussion so let’s dive in. Julio Jones’ current contract would carry cap hits of $15.3 million in 2021, $11.5 million in 2022, and $11.5 million in 2023. There are eight teams in the NFL who have that kind of room under the cap right now per Albert Breer:

Jaguars $38.83M
Jets $24.58M
Broncos $23.21M
Bengals $22.15M
Lions $21.04M
Browns $20.57M
Chargers $19.40M
49ers $17.86M

The Titans currently have just under $4-million in available cap space for the 2021 season — and they still haven’t officially signed Monty Rice, Elijah Molden, or Rashad Weaver to their rookie contracts — so how could they afford to add Jones?

Well, if you’ve been reading along here at Broadway Sports this offseason, you know that they can easily restructure a veteran contract or two and create more than enough space to get Jones’ deal in under the cap. In fact, simply converting Ryan Tannehill’s 2021 salary into a bonus would push $15.6-million of his $29.5-million cap number into the 2022 and 2023 seasons for cap purposes. It doesn’t affect Tannehill’s pay in any way and it instantly creates the cap space needed to fit Jones under the cap.

Tennessee could also do the same thing with deals for Derrick Henry, Taylor Lewan, or Rodger Saffold if they chose to do so — and they could create some space by extending Ben Jones too — but restructuring Tannehill makes the most sense. His 2021 base salary of $24.5-million is fully guaranteed already, so you’re not guaranteeing new money, you’re simply changing the years in which that money is accounted for on the salary cap. In fact, as former NFL agent Joel Corry has pointed out multiple times, it’s common for NFL contracts to give teams rights to automatically convert salary to bonus without the consent of the player. So Tannehill may not even have to be asked prior to the team restructuring his deal, but even if his contract didn’t include that language, there is no downside for him.

But what about the cap implications for future years? With Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry, Taylor Lewan, Rodger Saffold, Kevin Byard, and Bud Dupree all carrying eight-figure cap hits for the next couple years the Titans are tight against the cap and figure to remain relatively tight moving forward. Restructuring Tannehill’s deal would kick $7.8-million in additional cap hits into 2022 and 2023 and when you add Julio Jones’ cap hits of $11.5-million in each of those seasons, you’re looking at $19.3-million in additional cost in each of those years to add Jones to the roster.

That’s a big chunk of change to add for a team that already has close to $182-million in “top-51” salaries committed for the 2022 season. Adding $19.3-million to that number would bring them awfully close to the $200-million range that is being projected by some for the 2022 salary cap, and that’s before you consider re-signing guys like Ben Jones, Harold Landry, Jayon Brown, Anthony Firkser, Rashaan Evans, Geoff Swaim, or Josh Reynolds.

It would be reasonable to expect the 2022 cap to climb to at least $200 million, and agents have told The Athletic recently that they believe the 2023 cap could be in the $230 million range.

Lindsay Jones, The Athletic

However, the Titans do have considerable ability to create additional cap space next year as well. Contracts for veterans like Kevin Byard, Derrick Henry, Taylor Lewan, Rodger Saffold, Janoris Jenkins, Kendall Lamm, and Brett Kern are low on guaranteed money past this season which means an extension or release — depending on their performance this season — could free up considerable cap space. They could also play the restructure game again and kick the can further into 2023 and beyond. Under normal circumstances, that can be a dangerous ploy that leads to cap hell — just ask Floyd Reese and the early-2000’s Titans — but with the new TV contracts in place and league revenue set to skyrocket over the coming seasons, borrowing against future years doesn’t seem like a terrible idea right now.

We should also note that Julio Jones’ salary for 2023 is not guaranteed, so if injuries and age do catch up with the veteran wide receiver, the Titans wouldn’t be on the hook for that final year of his deal. That is an important detail since the next two Titans who would be due for potential mega-extensions — A.J. Brown and Jeffery Simmons — won’t see new deals kick into big money until the 2023 season.

There has also been talk of teams asking the Falcons to eat some of Jones’ salary as part of the deal, similar to the way that the Dolphins paid $5-million of Ryan Tannehill’s $7-million salary in his trade to the Titans in 2019. That may require additional draft compensation to entice Atlanta to take on some of that cap hit, but it’s another way to massage the financial side of this deal if that’s a major concern for Tennessee.

So yes, the Titans can afford to trade for Julio Jones. It would require them to restructure Ryan Tannehill and it certainly puts them on an even narrower path financially for the next couple of years, but it can be done without giving up the ability to retain key pieces of the future like Brown and Simmons.

What about the draft compensation?

As mentioned above, the Falcons reportedly want a first round pick for Jones. It’s understandable to some degree considering the stature of the player we’re talking about. Jones is a seven-time Pro Bowler and currently sits at 20th on the NFL’s all-time receiving yards leaderboard with 12,896. His 9.7 yards per target are third among all receivers with at least 400 targets since the league started tracking that stat in 1992.

And while Jones is coming off his worst season since 2013 — primarily due to a nagging hamstring injury that he tried to play through early in the year — he still produced 85.7 yards per game in the nine games he was active for, good for seventh among all pass catchers. When he’s on the field, Jones is still extremely dangerous.

However, at 32 years old and playing on an expensive contract, is he worth a first round pick? Probably not. Stefon Diggs, Odell Beckham Jr., and Amari Cooper are the last three receivers to fetch first round values on the trade market and they were 26, 26, and 24, respectively, when those deals were made. While Jones has a longer and better track record of production than any of those three, he’s also clearly on the back nine of his career.

I’d imagine that Jones will probably still command at least a day two pick though, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he was moved for something like a second and a sweetener — maybe a day three pick or a young starter. Should the Titans be willing to make the deal if that’s the cost?

My answer is a resounding yes here. While Jon Robinson has had an unusually high hit rate in the second round, those picks are statistically about a 50-50 proposition to even become regular starters at the NFL level, much less a high-end producer. Robinson’s hits on Derrick Henry and A.J. Brown have been remarkable and Harold Landry hasn’t provided bad return either, but you’re just as likely to end up with a Kevin Dodd or Austin Johnson as you are a Henry or Brown.

Why Julio Jones and the Titans make sense for each other

The Titans worked hard to rebuild their defense this offseason, but they cannot afford a backslide of offense. Not in a league where it’s been four years since a team without a top-10 offense competed in a conference championship game. While I believe the Titans viewed Corey Davis’ production as more of a byproduct of Tannehill, Henry, Brown, and an outstanding offensive line, the fact that they’ve done so little to replace him or Jonnu Smith is at least somewhat concerning. Adding Julio Jones would relieve those concerns considerably.

Even at 32, Jones is still a top-10 wide receiver when he’s on the field. He averaged 1,565 yards per season from 2014 through 2019 and was close to that pace last year before he was finally shut down. How big of an impact did he make when he was able to play through the lingering hamstring issues? Atlanta was 1-10 in games that either missed or was limited. They were 3-2 in games that he played and finished.

The injury issues are, of course, a concern. Jones has frequently appeared on the injury report throughout his career and that’s generally something that only gets worse with age. However, he had played in 49 of a possible 50 games from 2017 through 2019 before battling the hamstring issue in 2020. Hamstring injuries are notoriously difficult to play through and in hindsight it certainly appears that the Falcons should have given Jones more time to recover when the injury initially occurred. Mike Vrabel’s cryptic and cautious approach to managing injuries could be a benefit to Jones, even if it means that the star wide receiver sits out an extra game here and there.

Pairing him with an emerging star in A.J. Brown would give the Titans an elite wide receiver tandem on par with any in the NFL. Throw in Josh Reynolds and Dez Fitzpatrick as rotational pieces and you suddenly have a nice-looking set of weapons for Ryan Tannehill.

Jones also comes with the added benefit of having experience in an offense similar to the one the Titans figure to roll out in 2021. The most productive year of his illustrious career came in 2015 when Kyle Shanahan installed his brand of outside zone/west coast football in Atlanta. On that same staff was Matt LaFleur, who installed a very similar system that continues to be the basis of what the Titans offense is today. The concepts, reads, and routes that Julio Jones would be asked to run in Tennessee should be — at the very least — quite familiar to those he saw under Shanahan in 2015 and 2016.

It’s very reasonable to expect a player of Jones’ caliber and experience to jump right in and hit the ground running. With A.J. Brown and Derrick Henry to take some of the attention away from Julio, I have little doubt that we’d see outstanding production right away. Could we see a decline from a top-10 player to a tier slightly lower over the next couple years as Jones ages into his mid-30s? Absolutely, but the Titans don’t have to have Julio carrying their offense like Atlanta did for much of the past decade. They just need him to be a quality complement to Brown and Henry.

While Jones’ preference of playing for a winner is secondary to the wants of the Falcons in this scenario, it can’t hurt that the Titans have been contenders in recent years and that they play their football in the AFC. If Atlanta feels the need to “do right” by Julio, Tennessee would be about as close as it gets to an ideal fit.

Pushing all-in for 2021 and 2022 makes perfect sense

If the Titans defense even makes just a modest improvement from terrible to mediocre, you’re looking at a real Super Bowl contender with Julio Jones added to the roster in 2021 and 2022 and that is the window with the current iteration of the roster. By the start of the 2021 NFL season Ryan Tannehill will be 33, Taylor Lewan, Rodger Saffold, and Ben Jones will be 30, 33, and 32 respectively, and Derrick Henry will be 27 with 827 touches over the past 24 months. Henry is as close to superhuman as you can get in the NFL, but it’s unlikely that he has more than two or three more years left at this level.

None of the Titans core offensive players have significant guaranteed money on their contracts past 2022 and none of them are under contract at all past 2023. Chances are that the Tennessee offense looks quite a bit different by the time we get to the 2023 and 2024 seasons.

I’m not advocating for a series of moves that completely blows up the future beyond 2022, but trading one second round pick to add an elite player at a position of need who can help maximize your chances of pushing this group over the top is a completely justifiable risk to take for Jon Robinson. Could a second round pick and close to $30-million in guaranteed salaries look like a bad deal in a couple years if Julio Jones simply cannot stay healthy or suddenly declines? Absolutely, but it won’t look any worse than a once-elite Titans offense backsliding to mediocrity as the team clings to day two picks and future cap space.

Jon Robinson made an all-in splash move last summer when he added Jadeveon Clowney just before the start of the regular season. However, the failure of that addition shouldn’t stop him from taking another big swing. The Titans are just as close to contention as they were this time last year and Jones is a better player — even at 32 — than Clowney ever was.

It’s time to go all-in on the 2021 and 2022 seasons for Tennessee. It’s taken two decades for the Titans to assemble an offense that’s hot enough to bring a Lombardi Trophy back to Nashville and they should be doing everything in their power to pour gasoline on that fire right now.

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