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The Julio Jones trade speculation has been percolating for months, especially in the past few weeks. Jones' comments Monday on a national sports show should only crank up the boilers several degrees.
In a surprising appearance on FS1's "Undisputed" — with host Shannon Sharpe calling him on his cellphone on the air — Jones was asked about his future with the Atlanta Falcons.
"Oh, man, I'm out of there, man," Jones said.
No, was this Jones projecting? Or does he have information from the Falcons that they'll be trading him? That much is unclear.
When asked where he wants to go, Jones was vague.
"Uh, right now I just ... I want to win," he said. Jones also appeared to balk at a trade to the Dallas Cowboys, even if that never felt like a realistic destination to begin with.
Something has to give. The Falcons are extremely tight up against the salary cap and will need to clear up more than $10 million in space in order to sign their nine draft picks.
When asked about the team's cap situation, new general manager Terry Fontenot referred to the Falcons having to make "tough decisions" but did not single out Jones or any other Falcon in terms of who could be moved.
“We knew when we stepped into this we were going to have to make some tough decisions because it’s just the reality of it,” Fontenot said. “That’s where we are with the salary cap. So, we have to make some difficult decisions, so we have to look at all the different options and all the different scenarios.”
Often referred to as “a Falcon for life” by team owner Arthur Blank previously, Jones feels extremely close to being moved. The most likely timetable for anything happening would be at least a week from now, with Jones' cap hits lessening after June 1.
Trading Jones after June 1 would allow the team to take a $7.75 million dead-money hit this year (and a $15.5 million hit in 2022), but it would also clear $15.3 million in space for 2021.
Which teams can afford to take on Julio Jones' salary?
According to Spotrac, there are currently 12 teams that can afford to take on Jones' $15.3 million salary for 2021 without having to make other cuts or salary adjustments — the Jacksonville Jaguars, Denver Broncos, New York Jets, Cincinnati Bengals, Indianapolis Colts, Cleveland Browns, the Washington Football Team, Los Angeles Chargers, New England Patriots, Detroit Lions, San Francisco 49ers and Carolina Panthers.
The Jaguars, Jets, Bengals and Lions feel like longer shots. The Broncos might be an option, but they're stocked with young WR talent and might opt to develop it (or keep flexibility for a QB trade).
The Browns would be an intriguing option, especially considering they could have drafted him in 2011 and appear to be gearing up for a Super Bowl run. The Colts and Washington could also use the WR help, but would they make such a move? The Chargers have been a popular team to pair Jones with, and Justin Herbert certainly would love the addition.
The 49ers can't be ruled out because of the connection with Kyle Shanahan. Jones led the NFL in receiving yards per game in 2015 and 2016, the two years Shanahan called plays in Atlanta. Giving Jimmy Garoppolo and Trey Lance a veteran target makes sense on the surface.
Are Patriots a realistic destination for Julio Jones?
The team Jones has been most often connected with in recent weeks has been the Patriots. Even after a free agency smorgasbord this offseason, New England has the money to add Jones' salary if Bill Belichick deems it a worthy move. The Patriots reportedly have kicked around the idea of trading for Jones in meetings.
What does Julio want? Well, according to NBC Sports Boston's Michael Holley — who once wrote a behind-the-scenes book on Belichick and the Patriots — reported late last week on "Boston Sports Tonight" that Jones might be open to New England.
"You know who [Jones] really wants to play with? ... He wants to play with Cam Newton. He likes Cam," Holley said. "That's the other thing: He thinks [Falcons quarterback] Matt Ryan has lost a little zing on his deep ball."
You could argue the same might be said for Newton, too, coming off a rough first season with the Patriots. But he has reportedly been impressive in offseason workouts as Newton has worked to rebuild his throwing motion.
And the Patriots have never been shy about trading for receivers in the past, nor have they hesitated from adding former Alabama players. Even with the additions of WRs Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne, and TEs Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry, the Patriots surely could use more offensive firepower.
Does Jones have anything left in the tank?
Jones isn't old by receiver standards at 32, per se. But he's turning 33 during the next Super Bowl week and is coming off a hamstring injury in 2020 that had him in and out of the lineup seemingly every few weeks.
It appeared Jones was never healthy to start the season, which is an even bigger concern considering the NFL canceled the preseason and curtailed training camp amid the COVID-19 pandemic. He was limited to nine games in 2020, with 51 catches for 771 yards and three scores.
Jones averaged 103.8 catches, 1,564.7 yards and 6.2 touchdowns over his previous six seasons, missing only four combined games over that span from 2014-2019.
If Jones returns to pre-2020 form, the team that lands him could he getting a Comeback Player of the Year candidate. If he's more like the broken-down version we saw a year ago, the Falcons might look smart for moving on from him now.
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