It finally happened. The Titans traded a 2022 2nd round pick and a 2023 4th round pick to the Falcons for Julio Jones and a 2023 6th round pick.
After letting Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith test free agency and cutting Adam Humphries, the Titans had a massive hole at pass catcher on offense. Only adding Josh Reynolds and two day-three receivers in the draft, the wide receiver depth was still looking thin after the bulk of the offseason had passed.
By adding Julio Jones, the receiving room all of a sudden looks revamped; being able to push all the other players down the depth chart. Between Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown, and now Julio Jones, the Titans offense looks more potent than ever.
Looking at his 2020 film, I’ll be honest in that Julio has definitely taken a step back athletically, but it doesn’t really matter when he was three or four steps ahead of everyone else to begin with. Let’s not forget that Julio is one of the most freakish athletes to ever play in the NFL.
Even at 32 years old, Julio has still maintained his elite acceleration and burst. For example on this clip, notice how quickly he eliminates the cushion off the line and then on his in-breaking route, he is able to maintain his speed through the soft cut. Julio is one of the best “bigger” receivers at controlling his larger frame/weight through his breaks.
In addition to his explosiveness off the line, Julio offers a true deep threat long speed ability that is currently lacking in the Titans wide receiver group. On this stop and go route, Julio sells the first break before bursting up field. As a long strider, he has the deep speed to separate down the field against his defender. Unfortunately, Matt Ryan under throws the ball and forces Julio to slow down, resulting in a 44-yard gain. However with better deep ball placement, this should have been a long touchdown reception.
Despite his age, Julio has still maintained his top speed on vertical routes at over 20 miles per hour.
In fact, there were reports that part of the reason Julio wanted to leave the Falcons was due to Ryan’s diminishing abilities to throw deep down the field. While Matt Ryan is still a great quarterback, there is some truth to him having lost some zip on his deep balls, according to stats from PFF.
On the flip side, Julio is joining a quarterback and offense that has been incredibly efficient and effective throwing down the field since Ryan Tannehill took over as the starter. According to PFF, Tannehill ranked third in adjusted deep ball accuracy, first in deep ball yards per attempt, and sixth in deep passing grades. While Tannehill only ranked 25th in deep passing attempts in 2020, this is an area of the offense that the Titans could potentially utilize more with the addition of Julio. I would expect Julio to not only take over the deep passing production of Corey Davis and Kalif Raymond, but to add to it in the 2021 season.
Now despite his slight decrease in physical ability, Julio’s game should age well due to his nuanced route running ability. It’s rare to see some as physically gifted as Julio that also maximizes his separation with intelligent and crisp route-running.
On this next clip, Julio runs a blaze out route, but most just call it the “Julio” route because no one runs it better than him. On this route, Julio faces a trail man technique from his opposing corner. He quickly defeats the press, gains the inside leverage, and then takes a hard jab/head fake inside before breaking back outside for the catch.
This type of route-running prowess epitomizes the anomaly that Julio truly is at the receiver position. Despite being 6’3″ and 220 lbs., he is able to run like a smaller slot receiver; changing directions quickly in the horizontal plane with sharp cuts. This blaze-out route and concept is a Shanahan favorite and one that I expect Todd Downing and the Titans to utilize in the 2021 season with Julio.
Again, Julio runs the blaze out but against off coverage in the red zone. Julio forces the corner to completely bite on the initial break before breaking back out wide open for the touchdown.
Now, one final clip to illustrate just how impressive Julio’s route running ability is. This cut is just ridiculous as he casually drops his defender. Julio sells the go route all the way before quickly changing his direction to the outside at top speed. This level of change of direction and explosiveness out of breaks especially at his size is truly generational.
Julio also still fits the physical brand of football that the Titans want to play on offense. He still plays with the aggressive bully ball mentality that both A.J. Brown and Derrick Henry possess with the ball in their hands. Even at age 32, Julio refuses to just walk out of bounds without delivering a blow to the defense.
Between Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith, the Titans are losing 529 yards after catch from the 2020 offense. Crazy enough, Julio had 231 yards after the catch in just 9 games played in 2020, which equates to 411 yards after catch in a 16-game season. If we look back to his previous two seasons, Julio had 364 yards after catch in 2019 and 448 yards in 2020. Yards after catch has been a huge part of the Titans success in recent years and Julio should be able to capitalize on it with the quality targets the receivers get in this play-action heavy offense.
This bully ball mentality also bleeds into his route running and even his blocking (ew). On this play, the Vikings put a high-low cone bracket coverage on him because he had been torching them all game. Despite the double coverage, he simply runs straight through the corner, overpowering the defender, and rebounds off to create separation. This play is definitely an offensive pass interference, but one of the many benefits of being such a well-regarded, hall of fame worthy receiver like Julio is that you can get away with push off from time to time.
As you can see from the film, Julio can still perform at an extremely high level. When on the field, I would still consider him a top-5 receiver in the league. He is very far from being “washed”. Due to his route running ability and already elite athleticism, his game should age very well into his thirties.
Age, Injuries, and Longevity
The main negatives to bringing in a talent like Julio Jones was his age and injuries contributing to a question in his overall longevity. It’s usual not the best idea to give up high draft capital for a player past their thirties, but Julio may be an exception.
In his past four seasons, Julio has dealt with various foot injuries, hamstring strains, and even a shoulder AC joint sprain. However, it only resulted in him missing seven games across four seasons. 2020 was only the second time in Julio’s career that he has missed more than three games in a season due to injuries during his 10-year career. Injuries are inevitable in this game, but Julio has been fairly durable and able to play through injuries. In my opinion, this recent criticism of being injury prone is rooted more in recency bias rather than fact.
At the age of 32, many question how many years Julio has left of being a truly productive NFL receiver. PFF recently wrote a fantastic article looking at the correlation between athleticism and performance on aging players. In short, the article states more athletic and better players (based on wins above replacement) tend to age better as well. It’s no coincidence that some of the best receivers of all time, such as Randy Moss, Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens, and Larry Fitzgerald, had some of their best seasons after turning thirty. This is great news for the Titans because Julio is arguably the most athletic and best receiver of this generation.
Titans fans should expect around two more years of dominant play from Julio. In addition to a rising superstar in A.J. Brown, the Titans should have a top-3 receiving duo as they try to maximize their Super Bowl window.