In another timeline, perhaps the Falcons enter the 2021 season with one of the NFL’s most star-powered passing attacks. In this one, Atlanta handed that accolade over to Tennessee. On Sunday, the Falcons agreed to jettison receiver Julio Jones—one of the franchise’s best players ever—along with a 2023 sixth-round pick to the Titans in exchange for a 2022 second- and 2023 fourth-rounder. Now, the Titans will field the NFL’s best starting receiving duo (Jones and A.J. Brown). And with Derrick Henry also in the mix, Tennessee has the most intimidating group of playmakers in the league. The Titans now have the look of a playoff team after losing several key faces throughout the offseason.
Last month, speculation over where Jones would land ramped up, and the Titans were an obvious personnel fit. The five-time All-Pro wideout made it known that he wanted to play somewhere he’d win during his Undisputed conversation with Shannon Sharpe, which Jones may have believed was a private conversation. Subsequent reporting indicated that he wanted to pair up with a big-armed quarterback. The Falcons preferred to trade Jones outside of the NFC. Tennessee checks all three marks. The Titans have registered five consecutive winning seasons, including an 11-5 finish last year (their best record since 2008). According to Pro Football Focus, quarterback Ryan Tannehill finished fourth in yards per attempt (17.6) on pass attempts that traveled 20 yards or more; since joining the Titans in 2019, Tannehill owns PFF’s eighth-highest deep-passing grade. But while the prospect of Jones joining the Titans was enticing, Tennessee didn’t seem likely to make a move because of his massive cap hit.
Jones’s $23.05 million cap hit this season is the highest among wideouts, per Over the Cap. The cash-strapped Falcons were always looking for a deal that wouldn’t require them to take on any of Jones’s contract in a trade. The Titans have only $3.4 million in cap space but, per Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer, they will assume Jones’s full contract while tweaking other contracts to make it work. According to Spotrac, Tennessee could likely restructure both Jones’s current deal and Tannehill’s 2021 salary to accommodate Jones’s arrival. And, with all of the particulars seemingly resolved, the fun can begin.
The Titans offseason could have been better. After scoring just 13 points in a wild-card loss to the Ravens, they lost tight end Jonnu Smith and receivers Corey Davis and Adam Humphries to free agency, and offensive coordinator Arthur Smith departed to become the Falcons head coach. Tennessee’s offense has finished in the top 10 of Football Outsiders’s offensive DVOA ratings in each of the past two seasons since Tannehill arrived and Smith assumed OC duties. With the architect of the Titans’ offensive success gone, as well as a few other important pieces in their passing game, there was concern about whether Tennessee’s offense would be due for regression in 2021. Jones’s presence provides a buffer to counteract that possibility.
According to Next Gen Stats, Henry, who rushed for an NFL-high 2,027 yards, faced eight-man boxes less often in 2020 (down from 35.6 percent in 2019 to 27.8 percent in 2020), despite leading the league in rushing attempts (378) by 66 carries. Credit both Smith’s play-action heavy scheme and the explosive ability of the Titans receivers for those stats. Brown’s 6.2 yards after catch per reception led the NFL last season, per PFF. Brown’s 2.65 yards per route run and Davis’s 2.58 yards per route run ranked third and fourth highest, respectively, among 2020 receivers, too. Last season, the Titans ranked ninth in offensive explosive play rate (9 percent), according to Warren Sharp’s database, while finishing fourth in points per game (30.7) and third in total offense (396.4 yards per game). Now they’re adding Jones to the mix, who tallied 771 receiving yards and averaged a career-best 11.3 yards per target during an injury-hampered 2020.
Brown made a heavy push for the Titans to acquire Jones, posting on Instagram, Twitter and TikTok in quintessential Gen Z fashion. When healthy, the 32-year-old Jones is still one of the best receivers in the NFL. He played nine games last season, but Jones had appeared in 14 or more games in each of the previous six campaigns, indicating durability hasn’t been much of an issue for him before. The seven-time Pro Bowler ranks first in NFL history in career receiving yards per game (95.5) and is currently 20th in all-time receiving yards (12,896). At 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, Jones is another goliath in this Tennessee offense. The physically imposing Brown (6 feet, 226 pounds) is coming off a 2020 season in which he registered his second consecutive 1,000-yards receiving campaign and caught 57.7 percent of his contested targets, up from 31.8 percent during his rookie year, according to PFF. Lining the duo on the outside, while forcing defenses to account for Henry’s rushing ability, should prove a matchup nightmare. Or, as Brown tweeted shortly after news of the deal broke, the league might regret allowing Jones, Brown, and Henry to join forces:
Please excuse my language when I say this “y’all done F*cked up “ pic.twitter.com/TbI4SrkTVp— AJ Brown (@1kalwaysopen_) June 6, 2021
The biggest question mark could be the newly promoted offensive coordinator Todd Downing, who replaces Smith after spending each of the past two seasons as Tennessee’s tight ends coach. Downing, 40, previously spent one season as the Raiders’ offensive coordinator in 2017 before spending 2018 as the Vikings’ tight ends coach, and then joining the Titans staff in 2019. Last week, Downing spoke with media and made it clear that he’s trying not to concern himself with living up to the tremendous job that Smith did through the past few years.
“There would be pressure if I looked at it as my job to fill Arthur’s shoes,” Downing told reporters. “Each year is its own year with its own challenges and components. I look at this job more as what coach Vrabel and [general manager] Jon Robinson asked me to do to fill it this year. Not to be Arthur Smith or anybody else. It’s my job to be the best version of me and coordinator for this offense that I can be.”
With Jones aboard, Downing may not just live up to what Smith accomplished in Tennessee. This offense now has the potential to be even better.