Statistically speaking, the Falcons just traded away perhaps the best wide receiver since Jerry Rice. On Sunday, Atlanta agreed to send Julio Jones and a 2023 sixth-round pick to Tennessee in exchange for a 2022 second-round pick and a 2023 fourth-rounder. It was a mutual breakup: Jones wanted to leave for a team that would contend (and maybe a quarterback with more arm strength), and the Falcons’ new leadership needed to cut costs after inheriting the worst cap situation in the NFL.
Jones has the most receiving yards per game in NFL history (95.5, nearly 10 yards more than Calvin Johnson in second place). And the only player with more total receiving yards through his first 10 seasons is Rice. But while Jones is entering his age-32 season, he’s still elite when healthy, and now he heads to the Titans, who made the AFC championship just two seasons ago. Here are five takeaways from a deal that gives the Titans’ offense scary upside, and ripped open the scar tissue Falcons fans had developed from their Super Bowl loss to the Patriots in 2017.
The Titans Are a Fantasy Football Team
In going to Tennessee, Jones joins a team that already has receiver A.J. Brown and running back Derrick Henry. Jones and Brown now easily make up the NFL’s best receiving combo, unless you want to count Kansas City’s Travis Kelce as a wide receiver. And even if you do, Jones and Brown are undoubtedly the league’s biggest tandem. Brown is 6-feet, 226 pounds, and Jones is 6-foot-3, 220. They’ll each have 15 or 20 pounds on every cornerback they face this year—and Jones is faster than a lot of those defensive backs, too.
The Jones-Brown-Henry triumvirate at WR-WR-RB is probably the most talented one the NFL has seen since Indianapolis had Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, and Edgerrin James, or the Rams had Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce, and Marshall Faulk. And the receiver’s addition fixes one of the major holes on Tennessee’s roster.
Before Sunday’s deal, the Titans may have had the shallowest group of receivers in the NFL. The team lost tight end Jonnu Smith and receivers Corey Davis and Adam Humphries in free agency this offseason. That is 192 missing targets from last season—more than Michael Thomas had when he set the single-season record for catches a couple years ago. The only real replacement they’d brought in was Josh Reynolds, a fringe starter for the Rams last season who was slated to be Tennessee’s no. 2 option. Now, receiver has gone from the team’s weakest position to its strongest.
100-yard receiving games since 2011:— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 6, 2021
Julio Jones: 58 (most in NFL)
All Titans players combined: 50 pic.twitter.com/b2vxJ7Vm1R
A.J. Brown, Possibly a Sorcerer, Is Manifesting Childhood Dreams
In a somewhat surprising turn of events, the person who seems happiest about this deal is Brown. Brown has long idolized Julio. He wears no. 11 because of Jones; the two swapped jerseys after a game in 2019; and Brown wore a Jones jersey during pregame warmups against Jacksonville in December. (Brown claims he was the first NFL player to wear a different active player’s jersey in warmups.)
“[Julio] doesn’t have any flaws to his game,” Brown told ESPN on Sunday. “For me, in college, he was teaching me everything and didn’t even know it. That’s when I didn’t know him and was just watching him.
Now Brown will be lining up alongside his hero, and wreaking havoc on opposing defensive coordinators in the process.
No NFL offense faced more defenders in the box than the Titans last season. That’s what happens when Henry leads the NFL in rushes, rushing yards, and rushing touchdowns for two years in a row. But with Jones, the receiving corps will draw more attention, making Henry’s job easier—and potentially Brown’s, too. “I may get CB1 or Julio may get CB1,” Brown said. “But whoever gets CB2, [that cornerback] is going to be in trouble. It’s going to be fun.”
But That Doesn’t Mean Tennessee Is a Contender
Pop quiz: Name two Titans defenders off the top of your head. I’ll give you a minute.
No offense to Kevin Byard, but this is not the deepest defense in football. Tennessee had perhaps the worst pass rush in the league last year, essentially tying Matt Patricia’s Lions for the NFL’s lowest pressure rate. The Titans also allowed the second-most passing touchdowns, behind only … Matt Patricia’s Lions. Tennessee signed former Steelers defensive end Bud Dupree in free agency this year in an attempt to help their pass rush, but Pittsburgh fans were hardly heartbroken to see him go. Dupree has been an inconsistent player who benefited from playing on an elite defensive line that included T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward, and Stephon Tuitt. He also tore his ACL in December.
Pass rush isn’t the defense’s only concern. Tennessee’s top cornerback is 32-year-old Janoris Jenkins, who is on his third team in three years. The team’s no. 2 corner will likely be first-rounder Caleb Farley, who fell in the draft due to a back injury. Head coach Mike Vrabel is the defensive guy on staff, but he hasn’t exactly fielded excellent units. In his four years as a coordinator and a coach, Vrabel has never had a defense finish above average in Football Outsiders’ DVOA.
The main question for Tennessee is how Ryan Tannehill and this offense will perform without offensive coordinator Arthur Smith (who ironically left Tennessee in January to become the Falcons head coach). By any and all efficiency statistics, Tannehill has been an elite quarterback since taking over the Titans job in the middle of the 2019 season. But he’s been doing that in a Smith-led offense that’s known for its excellent use of play-action and magnificent play-calling. New offensive coordinator Todd Downing has his work cut out for him.
Even so, doubting Tannehill and the Titans feels like willful ignorance. Everything about this group’s magical 2019 run seemed impossible to replicate. Then they did it again in 2020. Perhaps this offense won’t be at the same level as Kansas City or Buffalo in 2021, but watching Tannehill, Julio, Brown, and Henry compete against those teams will still be appointment television.
Julio Is Still Elite … When Healthy
Jones is absolutely still elite when he’s healthy. The question is whether he can stay healthy across a full season. Jones missed seven games last year with hamstring injuries and always seems to have “Questionable (foot)” or “Questionable (hamstring)” next to his name in the injury report. But Julio’s maximum speed is still above average and comparable to where he was the past few years. #Haters can point out that Julio had 86 receiving yards per game last year, his worst figure since 2012. But 86 receiving yards per game for an entire career would rank second all time. Not a bad decline.
Still, franchises were clearly concerned enough about Jones’s age and future performance that no team offered a first-rounder in trade negotiations, and that’s why this deal looks different than some others involving top-tier receivers. Remember: Stefon Diggs was 26 when he went from the Vikings to the Bills. And that’s the same age Odell Beckham Jr. was when he was dealt from the Giants to the Browns. Julio has had five seasons and nearly 7,000 receiving yards since turning 26. That is an NFL career in and of itself. The Titans are flipping a future second-rounder in the hopes that they can win a Super Bowl now. It’s a good bet. Julio is one of one: a game-changing talent on the field, and a revered role model in the locker room who was available for less than a first-rounder. If he’s healthy, the Titans will be thrilled.
A Sorry Day in Atlanta
This was a bad day for Atlanta. The Falcons lost the best player in team history because they mismanaged their money and have become less and less competitive since losing the Super Bowl to New England. This team has been in free fall since blowing that 28-3 lead—Atlanta has gone 29-37 in the four seasons since—but trading away Julio is hitting rock bottom. The pain gets even worse when you consider they got only a second-rounder in return, the same haul they got from the New England Patriots for receiver Mohamed Sanu in 2019.
But new Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot didn’t really have another option. Atlanta had such a disastrous salary cap situation that it didn’t even have the accounting space to sign the team’s incoming rookies. A lot of NFL financials—especially contracts—are illusions. But the Jones contract is about as real as it gets: In 2019, Jones signed a three-year extension worth $66 million (or $22 million annually). A stunning $64 million of that $66 million was guaranteed. So not only did the Falcons give Jones more money per year than any receiver, but they also guaranteed it. That’s rare in the NFL. It’s especially rare for a player to get that kind of deal after turning 30, and even rarer for a player who has a history of lower-body injuries. Eventually, the deal became so onerous for the Falcons that other teams didn’t even have to give up a first-rounder to land Jones in a trade.
But to look at this solely through a money lens is to miss the point. Jones has been an exemplar of NFL skill and professionalism for a generation of wide receivers. He was a legendary high school football player whose time at Alabama jump-started Nick Saban’s recruiting dominance. Not only does Jones still have the prototypical size, speed, and athleticism to thrive in the NFL, but he’s also so fundamentally sound that high school coaches teach with his tape. The Falcons may have drafted tight end Kyle Pitts to replace Jones, and he’s a good choice: Pitts is the best tight end prospect in decades. But the Falcons had the chance for Pitts to learn at Jones’s side for at least a season. Now he’ll have to watch Jones on tape like everyone else.