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Which Julio Jones Trade Partners Make Sense?

It’ll take a lot to land arguably the best receiver of the past decade: draft picks, cap space, and a path toward contention. Which NFL teams have what it takes to make an offer?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Of the NFL’s top 20 all-time leading receivers, 15 switched teams at some point in their careers. Ten years into his career, Julio Jones—who’s currently 20th all time on the career receiving yards list (12,896)—seemed destined to become the fifth player on that list to stick with one franchise. But on Monday, amid rumblings that the Falcons want to trade Jones, the seven-time Pro Bowler essentially ensured that he’d finish his career in a different jersey.

Over the weekend, a picture of Jones wearing a Cowboys hoodie in Dallas went viral, prompting speculation over Jones’s future, which has quietly been in question for the past month. Shannon Sharpe then poured gas on the fire on Monday. During an episode of Fox Sports’ Undisputed, Sharpe called Jones in the middle of a segment to discuss the receiver’s future and put the call on speaker while on-air—seemingly without telling Jones that his response was being broadcast live.

“Man, look. You wanna go to the Cowboys, Julio?” Sharpe asked. “Or you wanna stay in Atlanta?” Without much diffidence, Jones replied, “Oh, man. Nah, I’m outta there, man. … Right now, I wanna win.”

Jones missed seven games last season with a hamstring injury, but still recorded 771 receiving yards while notching a career-high 11.3 yards per target, proving that he’s one of the NFL’s best receivers when healthy. While health concerns could impact how high the 32-year-old ascends on the all-time receiving yards list, Jones is a proven star. The question of whether Jones will play another snap in a Falcons uniform seems to be answered. Which team he’ll suit up for next remains to be determined, but we can gauge what his market will look like in the meantime.

Jones’s future with the Falcons first came into question ahead of the 2021 NFL draft, when Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer reported that Atlanta’s new front office—headed by general manager Terry Fontenot—told other teams the club would listen to trade offers on “any of the more expensive players on the roster.” Fox Sports NFL insider Jay Glazer noted a trade before the draft was unlikely due to the Falcons’ asking price and Jones’s sizable cap hit, while revealing the Ravens, who later drafted a pair of wideouts, were interested in acquiring Jones.

The Falcons are one of the NFL’s most cash-strapped franchises (their $410,351 of cap space ranks 30th, per Over the Cap). Jones signed a three-year, $66 million extension in 2019, locking him in through 2023, when he’ll be 34; his $23.05 million cap hit this season is the highest among receivers, according to Over the Cap. Trading Jones before June 1 would charge $200,000 against Atlanta’s cap, while doing it after the date would save the club upward of $15 million, per Spotrac.

The Falcons drafted Florida tight end Kyle Pitts fourth, giving first-year head coach Arthur Smith a dynamic pass-catching option to potentially pair with Jones and star wideout Calvin Ridley. With QB Matt Ryan still under center, keeping that trio together sounds enticing, but Jones’s recent comments and ensuing reporting undercuts the possibility. Both ESPN’s Adam Schefter and NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported Monday that Jones requested a trade a few months ago and that the Falcons have sought a first-round pick in return; Schefter added that Atlanta initially wanted to trade Jones out of the conference, but is now prioritizing securing the best deal possible. CBS Sports’ Jonathan Jones reported that, as of Monday, no team had made “a legitimate” trade offer for Jones and that a contending team would likely need to offer at least a second-round pick in order to acquire him. With that in mind, let’s take a look at seven teams who could be potential fits for Jones:

Arizona Cardinals

Notable WRs under contract: DeAndre Hopkins, A.J. Green, Christian Kirk, Rondale Moore
Assets: 2022 first- and second-round picks; $13.5 million in cap space

If the Cardinals want to continue leaning into their “Let’s Assemble a 2017 NFL All-Star Team in 2021” bit, then Jones makes tons of sense. Arizona has already shown multiple times that it’s not afraid to pursue star players (the Cardinals swindled the Texans to land Hopkins), and adding Jones would make Kliff Kingsbury’s offense one of the most exciting units in the league; the Cardinals would then have the NFL’s best receiving duo and a high-upside QB in Kyler Murray. Considering the arms race that’s developed in the NFC West this offseason, Jones finding his way to the desert isn’t a ridiculous idea. Hopkins even indicated he’d restructure his contract to make it happen:

Green Bay Packers

Notable WRs under contract: Davante Adams, Allen Lazard, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Amari Rodgers
Assets: 2022 first- and second-round picks; $2.5 million in cap space

Aaron Rodgers skipped Packers voluntary OTAs and is on vacation in Hawaii with his fiancée, actress Shailene Woodley. As Rodgers continues posturing his intent of not returning to Green Bay next season, the Packers could attempt to further their efforts to persuade him to stay by pursuing Jones. They already have Adams, who’s one of the league’s best receivers, and they used their third-round pick on Amari Rodgers, who should immediately enter the lineup as a contributor out of a variety of alignments. Giving the Packers QB a surplus of top-tier receiving options isn’t the worst idea.

The issue: Green Bay would need to take a page out of the Saints’ book of nonexistent cap room magic to tinker with its roster in order to make Jones fit.

Denver Broncos

Notable WRs under contract: Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, K.J. Hamler, Tim Patrick
Assets: 2022 first- and second-round picks; $22.1 million in cap space

The Broncos tout a robust collection of receivers, but Jones would be an instant upgrade over the members of the current group. CBS Sports’ Jonathan Jones mentioned Denver as a potential landing spot for Julio Jones as the club continues its pursuit of Rodgers. But the Broncos don’t seem to be a likely option because they aren’t currently positioned to be a contender as they’ve posted four consecutive losing seasons including a last-place finish in the AFC West last year. The absence of a premier QB is especially notable. However, Denver could feasibly enter the mix if things break right. The Broncos currently have the cap space and the draft capital to pursue Jones.

Indianapolis Colts

Notable WRs under contract: T.Y. Hilton, Michael Pittman Jr., Parris Campbell
Assets: 2022 second-round pick (conditional); $20.5 million in cap space

The Colts have the cap room and could dangle their second-round pick in exchange for Jones (assuming the conditional second-rounder they traded to the Eagles becomes a first, which will happen if Carson Wentz plays 75 percent of snaps, or 70 percent and the Colts make the postseason). However, the biggest question is whether Indianapolis fits the contender label. The Colts made the playoffs last season for the second time in three years under coach Frank Reich’s direction. Still, Indianapolis didn’t improve mightily this offseason via free agency. Indianapolis enjoyed production out of Pittman during his rookie season, but Hilton (8.2 yards per target, third-lowest single-season output of his career) didn’t recapture his past form and the rest of the receiving corps doesn’t have much proven production. Jones is a star no. 1 wideout who could immediately pay dividends for the Colts.

New England Patriots

Notable WRs under contract: Nelson Agholor, Jakobi Meyers, Kendrick Bourne, N’Keal Henry
Assets: 2022 first- and second-round picks; $16 million in cap space (per Over the Cap)

The Patriots splurged this offseason to revamp their passing attack, bringing in Agholor and Bourne along with tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith. That hasn’t precluded New England from at least internally discussing whether it could add the veteran star receiver, per NFL Network’s Michael Giardi.

Cam Newton returns as the Patriots’ incumbent starting QB, and Jones is reportedly interested in playing with his 2011 draft classmate. But first-round pick Mac Jones might provide competition for the job this season. Perhaps the uncertainty around who will be the starting signal-caller—and the fact New England is reeling off its first losing season since 2000—could be enough to dissuade Jones from joining the Patriots, but they certainly have the cap space to accommodate him.

San Francisco 49ers

Notable WRs under contract: Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, Mohamed Sanu Jr.
Assets: 2022 second-round pick; $17.7 million in cap space

If Jones’s true desire is to join a contender, the Niners are a strong fit. After an injury-riddled 2020 season, San Francisco is set to once again vie for the NFC conference crown and is already set with its QB of the future in rookie Trey Lance. The Niners offense boasts Samuel, Aiyuk, and tight end George Kittle, but could further extend its potential by reuniting Jones with coach Kyle Shanahan, who was the Falcons offensive coordinator in 2015 and 2016. Jones led the league in receiving yards per game in both years en route to picking up each of his two first-team All-Pro honors.

Tennessee Titans

Notable WRs under contract: A.J. Brown, Josh Reynolds, Cameron Batson
Assets: 2022 first- and second-round picks; $3.6 million in cap space

The Titans lost tight end Jonnu Smith and receiver Corey Davis this offseason, which clips their offense of two key playmakers. Tennessee boasts Brown and tailback Derrick Henry, two of the NFL’s best skill players, but without another dynamic pass catcher, the offense is almost sure to regress a bit in 2021. Jones represents a way for Tennessee’s passing game to maintain its efficiency and explosiveness. Both Brown and Henry have tweeted their support for the Titans to pursue the future Hall of Famer, with Brown offering up his no. 11 jersey if the trade happened.

The Titans, however, would have to perform some major cap gymnastics to acquire Jones. It’s unclear whether Tennessee could find a way to get him—or whether the club is even motivated to do so. Regardless, the Titans don’t present a perfect, obvious fit for Jones.