Late Sunday morning, the inevitable happened with Julio Jones, the franchise receiver for the Atlanta for the past decade. Atlanta rid itself of an onerous contract—three years and $38 million for a 32-year-old receiver who missed seven games due to injury last year—by sending Jones and a 2023 sixth-round pick to Tennessee for a second-round pick in 2022 and a fourth in 2023.
In the end, the Falcons made a deal with the only team that was really serious about obtaining Jones. The market for Jones wasn’t as hot as the Falcons thought it would be. Baltimore was interested before the draft but with Sammy Watkins arriving in free agency and Rashod Bateman and Tylan Wallace coming in rounds one and four of the draft, the Ravens dropped out. New England never had serious interest in committing $38 million to a 32-year-old receiver. Seattle was interested, but not for huge money. Tennessee was the last and best shot. But a source close to the deal told me there were three other teams involved in the last week, but none willing to give what Tennessee gave. That included taking on the entire amount Jones is owned through 2023.
That source also told me the key to getting the trade done was Tennessee’s willingness to add a second pick to the deal Sunday morning in a call between GMs Terry Fontenot of the Falcons and Jon Robinson of the Titans. Credit to Fontenot here. The rookie personnel czar, I’m told, reasoned that there was a huge difference between second-round picks. Tennessee, he thought, quite likely will have a pick in the fifties next year, and told Robinson he needed more to get the deal done. Makes sense. Tennessee’s second-round pick was 61st overall in 2020, and 53rd in 2021.
Robinson was willing to add another pick—but not without getting a lesser pick back. So in the Sunday call, after some negotiating, Robinson agreed to swap a four in ’23 for a six in ’23, and Fontenot signed off on it.
There will be much debate over the terms of the deal, and why the Falcons got primarily a late-second-round pick after getting a second-round pick for the forgettable Mohamed Sanu at the 2019 trading deadline from New England. I’ll give you 38 million reasons why the Falcons couldn’t get more. Jones is a fantastic player when healthy, but the combination of what he’s owed, plus the fact he doesn’t practice much now and missed nearly half the season last year, kept his future value down. I was told Sunday night that Atlanta owner Arthur Blank, who can be a demanding boss, did not press Fontenot for a better return than what he got.
When I spoke to Robinson on Sunday afternoon, he said judging Jones’ health “was big in the decision. Missing time last year, what were the circumstances surrounding that? And based on our evaluation of him, he’s healthy and doesn’t look like he’s lost anything to us.”
There’s also the change-of-scenery thing that should help Tennessee. Jones clearly wanted out of a rebuild in Atlanta and wanted to play for a contender. Tennessee’s defense will be a question after falling to 28th in yards allowed last year. But the offense should be uber-productive if Jones stays on the field.
“I just talked to Julio an hour ago, and he’s fired up to get here and start working with his new guys,” Robinson said. “He gives us real multiplicity on offense. We’re high on [free-agent wideout] Josh Reynolds too, and imagine Julio, A.J. Brown and Josh Reynolds in the pattern, with Derrick Henry in the backfield. You pack the box for Derrick and, I mean, someone’s gonna be open for Ryan to hit.”
I can’t think of an offense with two wideouts around 225 pounds or so (Jones and Browns) and a 247-pound back with back-to-back rushing titles. Robinson’s right. Playing the Titans will be a pick-your-poison deal.
“We believe in playing a physical game,” Robinson said, “with effort and finish, using our size. We think, sooner, or later, those big bodies will take a toll on you.”
We’ll know all about it in the first half of the new 17-game season. Look at this four-game stretch for the Titans in weeks six through nine: Buffalo at home on a Monday night, Kansas City at home, at Indianapolis, at the Rams. Easily could be four of the top 10 teams in football this year, and the Titans might need to score very big to go even 2-2 in those games. You get the feeling they’ll be able to, if Jones stays active. That’s the significant if facing the Titans.