Can one receiver make a difference in a team’s Super Bowl fortunes? We’re about to find out.
The Titans took a huge step forward on the PR/season ticket sales front on Sunday when they acquired All-Galaxy wide receiver Julio Jones from the Atlanta Falcons, along with a 2023 sixth-round pick, for a second-rounder in 2022 and a fourth-rounder in 2023. Will that translate to more wins in Tennessee? Or, for that matter, Atlanta? Yet to be determined.
With Jones joining AJ Brown and Derrick Henry in a hydra offense, Tennessee is likely to be the AFC South favorite and a trendy conference Super Bowl pick for bold prognosticators. Sports books like BetMGM, where actual money is on the line, are a lot less bullish on the Titans. Pre-Jones, Tennessee was a +4000 favorite to win the Super Bowl; now, the Titans’ odds have risen to +2500. That’s a nice bump for one player, but still well behind conference rivals like the Chiefs (+450); Ravens, Bills and Browns (+1400); and even with the Colts and Patriots.
Is that a fair assessment of Jones’ remaining skills? With a lot of mileage on his tires but plenty of highlights likely still ahead, Jones gives the Titans the league’s best receiving tandem alongside Brown. Add in Henry, the human locomotive, as well as one of the best quarterbacks in the conference in Ryan Tannehill, and you’re looking at a team that ought to throw up touchdowns with the reckless abandon of bachelorette parties trundling up nearby Broadway.
Granted, the Titans are going to have to restructure the contract of everyone within a four-mile radius of Nissan Stadium to make Jones work. For this season, Jones comes with a salary of $15.3 million but carries a cap hit of $23 million, more than any other wide receiver in the game, according to Over The Cap. (Starting to see why Atlanta made this deal, aren’t you?) That’s not ideal when the Titans had only $3.4 million of cap space available — workable, but not ideal.
Julio Jones also doesn’t play defense — well, except for last-second Hail Mary hands situations — and that’s a key concern for Tennessee going into 2021. Last year, the Titans ranked 24th at 27.4 points allowed per game.
Tennessee also just lost its creative offensive coordinator, Arthur Smith, to … well, Atlanta, where he’s the new head coach. So it’s no guarantee that the Titans will automatically flourish with Julio … but if nothing else, they’re going to be fun as hell to watch on offense.
As for the Falcons? Well, they’re saying all the right things, thanking Julio for his service and promising he’ll always be a member of the Falcons Family and all that. He leaves Atlanta as the franchise’s leader in receiving yards, and if there were ever a Mount Rushmore of Falcons players — which would no doubt be sponsored by Coca-Cola and presented by Home Depot — Jones makes the cut.
While lining up for the Falcons, Jones could always come through with an acrobatic how-did-he-catch-that grab. Had Atlanta been able to hold onto a 25-point third-quarter Super Bowl lead, Jones’ astounding sideline catch with less than five minutes remaining in the game would stand as one of the greatest plays in NFL history. Instead, you probably forgot it even happened:
Sadly for Falcons fans, Atlanta is bidding farewell to one of the greatest players not just in franchise history, but NFL history. (The list of players with more receiving yards than Jones through the first 10 years of their career: Jerry Rice. That’s it.) Almost no one can match Jones’ career numbers, and nobody has had his combination of size, speed, athleticism and creativity.
That combination comes at a high cost, though. Jones’ age, declining production — he only had three touchdowns last year in nine games played, and his lowest yards-per-game average since his second year in the league — and mammoth salary cap hit made him expendable in the cold business of the NFL. Combine Calvin Ridley, who’s been WR1A, if not WR1, the last couple years, and incoming #4 draft pick Kyle Pitts, and Matt Ryan has plenty of options outside Jones.
Atlanta made the decision to go with half-measures in its rebuild, sticking with Ryan and passing on a quarterback high in the draft while kicking Jones loose. The Falcons were reportedly livid that Jones’ “I’m out of there, man” take hit the air in what Jones may or may not have assumed was a private conversation with “Undisputed”’s Shannon Sharpe, since that negated much of Atlanta’s bargaining power.
But the Falcons had been looking for a way to move Jones since before the draft, and they managed to do so while offloading his massive salary and keeping him out of the NFC. Based on current divisional schedule rotations, the Falcons aren’t definitively slated to see the Titans in Atlanta until 2027. By then, Jones ought to be in the Falcons’ retired-numbers ring of honor, not the opposing sideline. (Atlanta will get a firsthand look at what it’s like to face Jones, for a series at least, when the Falcons and Titans square off in the first preseason game of the season on August 13.)
Will Jones, now 32, rediscover the brilliance of his 20s in Nashville? He’s at an age when wide receivers tend to decline, but he’s also still enough of a unicorn to be a dangerous matchup for any cornerback in the league. Either way, the Titans now enter the 2021 season as one of the league’s must-watch teams … and the Falcons will be riding waves of nostalgia watching from afar.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter/Instagram/Facebook at @jaybusbee or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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