Today’s AJC features something I thought I’d never write: The suggestion that the Atlanta Falcons might be better off without Julio Jones than with him. And not because he’s a bad player. (He’s a great player.) Because he’s a great player at a position where greatness isn’t required.
For the sake of this exercise, let’s say that the NFL’s five best receivers are (in alphabetical order) Antonio Brown, Dez Bryant, Calvin Johnson, Jones and Demaryius Thomas. Let’s toss in A.J. Green, DeSean Jackson and Jordy Nelson for good measure, and let’s add Larry Fitzgerald for old times’ sake. Know how many playoff games were won this postseason by the teams employing those nine men? Two.
The Seattle Seahawks came within a yard of consecutive Super Bowl titles without having a 1,000-yard receiver either year. The New England Patriots won the Super Bowl without a 1,000-yard wideout. Know how many wide receivers had 1,000-yard seasons in 2014? Twenty-one.
Jones’ contract is set to lapse after the 2015 season. New coach Dan Quinn, who has “final say” over the roster if not personnel, has said he wants to “celebrate greatness,” which would seem to mean he’s in favor of an extension. I’d be in favor of an extension, too — if the Falcons weren’t so wretched just about everywhere else.
The Falcons have tried the win-it-all-with-skill-people route, and it hasn’t quite worked. Thomas Dimitroff’s two highest draft picks were spent on Matt Ryan and Jones, and both have exceeded expectations. Two of his biggest acquisitions via trade/free agency were Michael Turner and Tony Gonzalez, both of whom did what they were hired to do. (Steven Jackson hasn’t.) The result was that the Falcons skewed toward finesse, and after five winning season the lack of heft caught up with them.
Were all things equal, I’d never suggest the Falcons should think about trading Jones or letting him leave as a free agent. But they’ve become a lousy team — 11-22 over the past two seasons — with an awful defense and an offensive line that got a bit better under Mike Tice (who left for Oakland) in part because it could get no worse. On such a team, a high-salaried wide receiver is a luxury item. In a league where a hard salary cap forces difficult roster choices ever offseason, can the Falcons afford to celebrate luxury?