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How Julio Jones Became the Anti–Antonio Brown and Possibly Changed NFL Contracts Forever

On the same day Brown signed with the Patriots after being cut by the Raiders, Jones became the richest wideout in league history. But the money’s not even the most important part of his deal.

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Julio Jones and Antonio Brown have always been opposites. Brown played anonymously at Central Michigan while Jones starred for national champion Alabama. Brown was a sixth-round pick while Jones was a prototype receiver prospect whom Atlanta traded up to get at no. 6 in the draft. Jones is five inches taller and nearly 40 pounds heavier, and ran a 40-yard dash in 4.39 seconds, putting him in the 95th percentile among receivers. Brown’s 4.56-second 40-yard dash was in the 45th percentile. Brown has been one of the most dramatic players at a famously dramatic position, while Jones is one of the league’s quietest stars. The only thing they outwardly have in common is their production: They are 1-2 in both catches and receiving yards since Jones entered the league in 2011, but Jones has never separated on a route as much as he separated himself from Brown this weekend. While the Brown saga soured after a tumultuous week that led to him being cut by the Raiders and signed by the Patriots in a five-hour span on Saturday, Jones completed one of the most successful contract negotiations ever—and he did it without most people realizing it was going on.

Jones signed a three-year contract extension for $66 million with $64 million guaranteed, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. This deal has no precedent in NFL history. The extension makes him the highest-paid receiver in football at $22 million annually on average, making him the first wideout to earn more than $20 million per year. Two years ago, Odell Beckham Jr. said to much derision that he wanted quarterback money. This is the closest any wide receiver has gotten. The gap between Jones’s average annual salary and the second-highest-paid receiver, New Orleans’s Michael Thomas, is nearly $3 million. That is almost equal to the gap between Thomas and the ninth-highest-paid receiver ($3.25 million). When it comes to receiver average annual income, the second tier is Thomas ($19.25 million), Beckham ($18 million), Tyreek Hill ($18 million) Mike Evans ($16.5 million), Brandin Cooks ($16.2 million), DeAndre Hopkins ($16.2 million), Adam Thielen ($16 million), and Sammy Watkins ($16 million). Brown—who is expected to lose out on $30 million guaranteed from Oakland, though he could file a grievance—signed in New England on a one-year, $15 million contract with $9 million guaranteed.

Jones is sitting atop all of them in his own category, but that’s not the remarkable part of Saturday’s news. What is stunning is that $64 million is guaranteed at signing. The usual tradeoff with these deals is the player gets to make headlines for being the highest-paid player at their position in NFL history (and all of the clout that comes with that title) while the team guarantees about 60 percent of the total money and can decide whether or not they want to pay the rest. Jones got to be the highest-paid receiver in the league and did it by putting a serious gap between him and no. 2 and got essentially the entire thing guaranteed. He has shattered the record for the percentage of a deal for a non-QB guaranteed by an NFL team, and he did it at 30 years old, when many teams would be arguing his best days are behind him.

Literally and figuratively, this is a huge deal. All NFL negotiations center around precedent. Compensation is based on the deals that similar players before them signed. Before Saturday, the precedent for the highest-paid player at his position having a fully guaranteed deal did not exist. Other receivers’ agents can now point to Jones’s deal negotiated by CAA’s Jimmy Sexton—and be assured they absolutely will. Top football players can now sign guaranteed deals like NBA players, and they can thank Julio Jones.

Jones did this by acting in the exact opposite manner as Brown. Like Brown, Jones made it clear that he wanted a new contract. Unlike Brown—who essentially forced his way off the Steelers in an attempt to get more guaranteed money—Jones kept his situation in-house. He reported to Falcons training camp instead of holding out while still making it clear he expected a contract before the season began. But entering the weekend, the deal had not been completed, and Jones said that he may not play in Week 1 without a contract.

Jones skipped the part of most holdouts that creates negative attention (missing practice) and leveraged the part of a holdout that makes teams nervous (missing games). This did not become a big news story, but Jones was apparently serious enough that he earned his historic contract the day before their Week 1 matchup against the Minnesota Vikings.

Jones can partially thank Brown for helping to get the deal done. It may have been difficult for Atlanta’s executives to fully appreciate Jones’s professionalism until they saw what the opposite looks like.

“There are a handful of elite receivers,” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said in a statement released by the team after the signing on Saturday. “Julio is certainly a part of that group, not only because of his production on the field but his leadership off the field and in the locker room.”

On the same day that Oakland jettisoned Brown, Jones, one of the few equals and the best foil of Brown’s career, became the richest receiver in the league and also the most secure. Brown’s release from the Raiders and subsequent signing is the bigger story, but when we look back on Saturday we may see Jones’s contract as the more influential one.