On the surface, the calendar flipping from May to June may seem rather meaningless within an NFL context. The league is in the midst of the offseason, after all, and right between the draft and the beginning of training camp. Sure, there are voluntary workouts, but nothing major is happening.
Right? Well, not quite.
Superstar wide receiver Julio Jones has been the subject of constant trade speculation this offseason, with him reportedly looking to leave the Atlanta Falcons. His wish to move on and the Falcons’ dire salary cap situation create a perfect storm for him being moved. “What does this have to do with the month of June, though?” you might ask. Beginning on June 2, future signing bonus prorations will hit the 2022 salary cap instead of this year’s.
Moving Jones now instead of pre-June 2 would significantly reduce his $23.05 million impact on the Falcons’ salary cap. While they would take on a dead cap charge of $7.75 million for this season (his 2021 signing bonus proration) plus an additional $15.5 million million in dead money next year (his 2022 and 2023 signing bonus prorations), they would create $15.3 million in cap space to work with this season.
Given that they currently have only $337,851 to work with, per Over The Cap, trading Jones would make fiscal sense for Atlanta.
While all three have their reasons to attempt a trade, let’s take a look at the situation from the Patriots’ perspective.
Why the Patriots should try to trade for Julio Jones
Ability: Make no mistake about it, Jones is still an elite wide receiver and a player capable of changing the fortunes of an offense despite coming off his least productive season since 2013. His blend of size, speed, experience and technique is rare, and makes him a challenging player for opposing defensive backs even at age 32.
Just look at it this way: his 2.6 yards per route run and 78.5 percent catch rate still finished in the top five among all qualifying NFL wide receivers even though he dealt with a nagging hamstring injury. Jones is still a very good player.
Need: New England’s aggressive offseason saw the club invest considerable resources in its pass catching positions. Nelson Agholor (2/$22M) and Kendrick Bourne (4/$16M) were both signed to multi-year free agent deals to help upgrade one of the worst wide receiver rooms in the league; Jonnu Smith (4/$50M) and Hunter Henry (3/$37.5M) were added to improve a tight end group that has struggled ever since Rob Gronkowski’s departure after the 2018 season.
Despite those investments, wide receiver remains a need for New England. The group led by Agholor, Bourne and returnees Jakobi Meyers and N’Keal Harry is certainly better than it was last year — Hello, WR1 Damiere Byrd! — but adding a player of Jones’ immense talent and elite playmaking ability to the mix would instantly give the Patriots one of the better skill position arsenals in the league.
The Mac Jones factor: Regardless of who wins the starting quarterback competition in New England this summer — the expectation is that it will be incumbent Cam Newton — Jones will be a bona fide weapon for the victor to work with.
In the long run, however, Mac Jones will take over the offense after being brought in with the 15th overall selection in this year’s draft. Whenever he steps into the starting lineup, Jones will have some proven weapons to work with. Meyers, Agholor, Bourne, Smith and Henry are a good group to work with. Jones, however, has the potential to be a different caliber weapon.
He is capable of beating tight man-to-man coverage due to his impeccable footwork and ability to run precise routes, locate the ball in the air and make catches outside his frame. Having him around to help the Patriots’ young QB would certainly be beneficial for his development.
Finances: If acquired via trade, Jones will hit his new team’s books with a salary cap number of $15.3 million — a sizable number bigger that that of all but one current Patriot (cornerback Stephon Gilmore costs $16.3 million in 2021). No doubt about it, the contract would cut significantly into New England’s current cap space of $15.1 million even after the Patrick Chung deal officially comes off the books in the coming days.
However, all of that is not as bad is it looks like.
For one, Jones would only decrease the Patriots’ cap number by roughly $14.5 million due to the league’s Top-51 rule. The team has also shown in the past that it is not afraid to alter contracts by converting salaries into signing bonuses. In Jones’ case, as was laid out by Miguel Benzan last week, it could create up to $9.5 million in savings that way. If that were to happen, Jones would count only $5.8 million against New England’s 2021 salary cap with the numbers in subsequent years going up.
Why the Patriots should not try to trade for Julio Jones
Cost: If Jones is expressing an unwillingness to alter his contract even in case of a trade, the cost associated with him would potentially be a challenge for the Patriots. Sure, they could still pull off a move and fit him under their current cap, but their ability to remain flexible through the rest of the 2021 season would depend on other transactions being made to clear up cap space.
That is not the only cost-related issue to be considered, though. New England also would have to send assets to the Falcons to bring him in, and along the way present more competitive offers than those of potential fellow suitors. While the reported asking price ranges from a first-round to a third-round pick, plus possible players involved as well, one thing is certain: even on top of his contract, Jones might not come cheap.
Age: Back in 2017, the Patriots sent a first-round draft choice to another NFC South team, the New Orleans Saints, to acquire wide receiver Brandin Cooks via trade. There was a major difference between Cooks and Jones at the time, though: Cooks was 23 when the trade was made, Jones is 32. Yes, that is only two years older than Randy Moss when he was acquired back in 2007, but those two years could still make a difference. By 32, Moss was already nearing the end of his road in New England.
Age is a factor to be considered, especially when relative to the contract associated with Jones and the Falcons’ potential asking price. It is impossible to say whether or not it would be a disqualifier from New England’s perspective, but it cannot be ignored either.
Injury history: The website Sports Injury Predictor analyzes injuries suffered by NFL players, and it has 25 different entries for Jones since he entered the league as a first-round draft choice back in 2011. That is a lot.
He has absolutely shown an ability to play through ailments and still put up Hall of Fame-caliber numbers, but injuries are another concern to be kept in mind when talking about potentially investing major assets to bring him in. Just last year, for example, Jones missed seven games with a nagging hamstring issue. With him not getting any younger, and the league moving to a 17-game regular season format, injury predictions will be important.
So, what should the Patriots do?
As mentioned above, Jones is still an elite wide receiver and adding him would fit the Patriots’ already aggressive approach this offseason in combination with the general circumstances of their roster construction on the offensive side of the ball. If the price is right going after him should be a no-brainer: he is a tremendous player, and capable of changing the complexion of New England’s entire passing game.
That “if,” however, looms large.
The price both in the form of Atlanta’s asking price and Jones’ contract will be the determining factor from the Patriots’ perspective. Unless both work out in a favorable way — the Falcons not asking for an unreasonable return, Jones indicating a willingness to restructure his deal upon arrival — Bill Belichick and company will probably prefer steering clear.
That is what conventional wisdom would say, at least. As Belichick and the Patriots have shown over the last few months, however, conventional wisdom may have to take a backseat if the right value comes along.