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How Would a Julio Jones Holdout Affect How the NFL Does Business?

The Atlanta receiver has made waves this offseason by skipping camp and unfollowing teammates on social media. If the Falcons star decides he wants more money while he still has three years left on his contract, what kind of precedent would this set?

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Like many modern relationships, the cracks between Julio Jones and the Atlanta Falcons first became public on Instagram. Jones, who has three years left on a five-year contract, skipped Atlanta’s voluntary workouts in April, and he made another bold statement that month when he deleted all of the Falcons-related posts on his Instagram account, unfollowed teammates on Twitter, and made his Twitter account private (his account has since become public again, but he still doesn’t follow any current teammates).

After that news surfaced, team officials told ESPN’s Vaughn McClure that Jones just wanted a “fresh start” on social media, and one anonymous source told McClure that Jones was trying to set an example for football players at Alabama — Jones’s alma mater — because, as he explained in a discussion with Alabama coach Nick Saban, he fears many young people don’t know who they are without social media. Still, if one of your friends erased all of the pictures of you together, would you assume things were fine?

Then, after skipping April’s voluntary workouts, Jones missed organized team activities (which are also voluntary) in May. That week, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported that Jones was hoping to get a “correction” to his contract and that the Falcons were open to the idea. But when asked about his absence, Jones denied that it was related to contract negotiations, telling TMZ, “It’s not even about that. Everybody wants a story right now. There’s no story to be told. I’m just working, I’m getting myself better. I’m working on myself right now, that’s all it is. There’s no bad blood between me and the team or anything like that. Just everybody on the outside looking in and try to destroy what we built there.”

At that time, head coach Dan Quinn said that Jones was in “great shape,” and that he expected Jones to be at mandatory minicamp in June. But when Jones skipped mandatory minicamp, the tune changed slightly. Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff released a vanilla statement saying that Jones had informed the team he would not be at minicamp, while Quinn was even more succinct: “Sometimes football and business intersect.”

Based on the preponderance of evidence, it seems likely that Jones’s absence from team workouts and his actions on social media are, at least in part, because he’s seeking a raise. Stars on expiring contracts skipping minicamp is a negotiating tactic as old as minicamp itself, but players finagling for new contracts with three years left on their deal is almost unheard of; the last player to do this was Kam Chancellor, who announced his retirement on Sunday. Chancellor held out for 53 days, including the first two games of the season, but returned without a new contract when the Seahawks started 0–2.

This holdout is even stranger coming from Jones, one of the quietest, least diva-like superstar receivers of the 21st century. But despite Jones’s statements to the contrary, it’s easy to see why he might be unhappy with his deal. Julio is a top-two receiver in the league in terms of talent and production, but he’s eighth in average annual salary among receivers, behind Antonio Brown, Mike Evans, DeAndre Hopkins, Sammy Watkins, Jarvis Landry, A.J. Green, and Davante Adams, according to Spotrac.

Average Annual Salary, Wide Receivers

Receiver Year Signed Contract Length Guaranteed Money Total Money Average Annual Salary
Receiver Year Signed Contract Length Guaranteed Money Total Money Average Annual Salary
Antonio Brown 2017 4 $19 million $68 million $17 million
Mike Evans 2018 5 $55 million $82.5 million $16.5 million
DeAndre Hopkins 2017 5 $49 million $81 million $16.2 million
Sammy Watkins 2018 3 $30 million $48 million $16 million
Jarvis Landry 2018 5 $47 million $75.5 million $15.1 million
A.J. Green 2015 4 $32.75 million $60 million $15 million
Davante Adams 2017 4 $30 million $58 million $14.5 million
Julio Jones 2015 5 $47 million $71.26 million $14.25 million
Allen Robinson 2018 3 $25.2 million $42 million $14 million
Demaryius Thomas 2015 5 $43.5 million $70 million $14 million

Watkins had just 593 receiving yards last year (39.5 receiving yards per game), but after signing a three-year deal worth up to $48 million with Kansas City in March, he now has a higher average annual salary than Jones, who had 1,444 receiving yards (90.3 receiving yards per game) in 2017. Both Watkins’s and Landry’s single-season career high in receiving yards (1,047 and 1,157, respectively) are lower than Jones’s career low in a healthy season (1,198). And beyond the numbers, Jones is as foundational to Atlanta’s offense as any skill player in the league.

The widening gap between Jones’s talent and his compensation is a result of recent financial trends. In 2015, when Jones signed his five-year extension with $47 million guaranteed and a maximum total of $71.25 million, the NFL salary cap was $143.3 million. Since then, the cap has jumped to a record $177.2 million, a near–24 percent increase in just three years. The overall pie is bigger, but players who are locked into their deals have seen the value of those contracts become diluted. When Jones signed his deal in 2015, his average annual salary was 9.94 percent of the Falcons’ salary cap. This season, that same figure makes up just 8.04 percent. Through this lens, it’s easy to see why Jones might want to renegotiate — simply returning to the percentage of the Falcons’ cap that he occupied when he originally signed his deal would put him at an average annual salary of $17.6 million, making him the highest-paid wide receiver in the league.

The issue is that, with three years left on his contract, Jones has no leverage. Even if Atlanta wanted to give him a raise, the team is already tight against the cap. In May, the Falcons gave quarterback Matt Ryan a five-year deal worth $100 million guaranteed and as much as $150 million total to make him the league’s highest-paid player. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, who has been a stalwart for Atlanta’s defensive line, will be a free agent after this season, as will starting left tackle Jake Matthews, starting strong safety Ricardo Allen, and versatile running back Tevin Coleman. All those players are coming off of cheap rookie deals and will drastically change the Falcons’ cap situation if they re-sign. Falcons majority owner Art Blank told Jay Clemons, a reporter with an Atlanta NBC affiliate, in May that he wanted Julio to be a Falcon “forever.” But giving him a raise ahead of schedule would only tighten the cap vise.

If the Falcons were to agree to negotiate with Julio, it could also change how superstars do business in the NFL. It’s standard operating procedure for players on expiring deals to hold out, but many organizations refuse to negotiate with players who have two years or more left on their contract. If Jones is able to renegotiate in any meaningful way with three years left, it could set a precedent for star players whose deals have become obsolete (cough, Aaron Rodgers, cough).

Should Julio report to training camp in August, most of this could become moot. But if he decides to extend his absence, the Falcons will be forced to play hardball with a player who is beloved by fans, respected in the locker room, and, oh by the way, just happens to be a top-five skill player smack dab in his prime at 29 years young. The Falcons need Julio on the field, but the way the team handles his absence will reverberate far beyond Atlanta.