The Falcons are open to trading Julio Jones. So said general manager Terry Fontenot, speaking Monday with Atlanta’s Fox affiliate. This isn’t a surprise: The Falcons would be nuts not to listen to overtures for Jones, who’s 32 and who plays a position where age matters. This does not, however, mean that they will trade him. I’d be surprised — not shocked but surprised — if they do.
The Falcons are the mystery guest of the teams holding high first-round picks in this NFL draft. The three clubs that will choose ahead of them have all but taken out full-page ads in their local papers saying, “We’re drafting a quarterback!!!” There’s a chance the Falcons might also draft a quarterback at No. 4, but the Falcons have a precious commodity the Jaguars, Jets and 49ers lack. They have Matt Ryan, the definition of a franchise QB.
This team has played 208 regular-season games since drafting Ryan in 2008; he has started 205 of them. He has been a Pro Bowl selection. He has been the NFL’s MVP. He’ll be 36, which isn’t all that old in quarterbacking years. Tom Brady is older. Aaron Rodgers is older. Ben Roethlisberger is older. Philip Rivers just retired at 39. Drew Brees retired at 42.
One reason the Falcons’ old administration re-upped Ryan for five seasons at $150 million in May 2018 was that it believed he could remain a productive player at least until he’s 38, and why not? For all the team’s issues with its offensive line , he has stayed ridiculously healthy. If he’s no longer one of the NFL’s five best quarterbacks, he’s still among the top 10.
The guess — and it’s just a guess — has been that Arthur Smith, who had his pick of head-coaching offers, chose to work in Flowery Branch because he believes he can maximize Ryan’s assets. Smith last worked with the Titans, where he turned the non-elite Ryan Tannehill into the league’s leading passer in 2019. Matt Ryan is better than Ryan Tannehill. Having Ryan under contract through 2023 wasn’t something, it says here, Smith viewed as a detriment. On the contrary, it’s a key reason he took this job.
That doesn’t mean Smith and Fontenot haven’t considered life beyond Ryan. They’re the new stewards of an organization that hasn’t done much of anything since 28-3. At some point they’ll need another new quarterback. But is there a compelling reason to invest in maybe the fourth-best quarterback in this draft and pay him millions to hold a clipboard for a year or two? (Not that anyone has clipboards anymore. They all have Microsoft tablets.)
If you’ve decided that Ryan is still your quarterback — there’s no indication Smith/Fontenot have done otherwise — then taking a high-profile understudy is the quickest way to guaranteeing that the 2021 season will be no better than the past three. The new regime had to go bargain-shopping in free agency because, as Fontenot said Monday, “we are in a difficult cap situation; that’s just the circumstance and it’s not a surprise for us.” (Remember when Thomas Dimitroff and Rich McKay kept saying the Falcons weren’t in cap hell?)
If you’re sticking with Ryan, then you’re not launching a full-blown rebuild. If you’re not in a full-blown rebuild, you’d better be serious about winning soon, and the way to win is to put better players around Ryan. If that remains the aim, then you can’t in good conscience trade the greatest receiver — maybe the greatest player at any position — this franchise has had, meaning Julio Jones.
Let’s face it: They’d never get anything approximating full value in exchange for J. Jones. Dimitroff pried a Round 2 pick from New England for Mohamed Sanu, and that was considered a windfall. They might get two or three picks in a Julio deal, but they’d have a tough time landing a prime Round 1 choice. The only clubs that would pay big in draft capital for a 32-year-old receiver are those close to the top but not quite there, and the absorption of his contract would be a signal that they’re in Super-Bowl-or-bust mode, a declaration not many are willing to make.
More guessing. The Falcons will draft a quarterback in 2021, but it won’t be in the first round. They’ll also weigh the pros/cons of trading down to acquire extra picks and spend them on defenders, which wouldn’t be a bad thing, but they’ll also ask themselves: What’s the quickest route to getting good again? Answer: drafting Kyle Pitts, the outrageously gifted Florida tight end.
Having Pitts to go with Jones and Calvin Ridley would make any quarterback better, and Ryan isn’t just any quarterback. Until we’re told otherwise, he’s the Falcons’ quarterback. The worst thing they could do is stick with Ryan but — by trading Jones, say — lessen his chances of succeeding. That’d make no sense.
As Mike Ehrmantraut counseled Walter White: “No half-measures.” You’re either rebuilding or you’re not. If Ryan’s your quarterback, you’re not rebuilding. Retooling, maybe, but not rebuilding.