Mark Bradley: Trading the great Julio Jones feels awful, but it had to be done

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Julio Jones, who apparently wanted to go, is gone. The Falcons have traded the great receiver to the Tennessee Titans. In return, they get a second- and fourth-round draft pick, which would be an underwhelming return for a backup cornerback but is downright laughable for maybe the greatest player in Falcons history.

In the Falcons’ defense, this – or something like this – is about as much as they could expect to net. They had little leverage. He wanted out. They wanted rid of his contract, which has three seasons to run and would have compromised anything this new administration sought to do. We might never know which came first, Jones’ trade demand or the Falcons’ desire to divest themselves of his salary, but it’s safe to say both parties got what they wanted, even if only the Nashville crew feels like celebrating.

Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith were dealt an unwinnable hand. To keep Jones would have meant retaining a 32-year-old wideout at a time when the club is trying to find money to pay its draftees. To keep Jones would have meant holding onto a player who, as we know from his phone conversation with Shannon Sharpe, wanted to be elsewhere. To send him to Tennessee opens the possibility of Jones, who almost won a Super Bowl here, winning one while employed in a state with which Georgia shares a border.

The Titans get a difference-maker. For the man whom general manager Thomas Dimitroff spent five draft picks to acquire, his successor could manage but a No. 2 and a No. 4. Still, some credit must be given to Fontenot/Smith. They’ve cleared the air. At Smith’s first video press conference of OTAs, which are optional, the coach spent much of the time talking about why he wouldn’t talk about Jones. Next up is minicamp, which isn’t optional and would have loosed another round of queries: “Is he here? If not, where is he? Have you heard from him? Is he getting fined?”

For five months, we’ve asked the question: Are the Falcons rebuilding or not? They’ve kept Ryan, which falls under the “not” heading. They didn’t draft a quarterback in any round: Another check under “not.” Kyle Pitts, their top pick, is expected to offer immediate help. So: three “nots.” But a team that trades a player of this magnitude doesn’t fit the profile of a win-now organization. It fits the profile of one that knows it must take a step back to go forward.

For years, this has been a talented team that, for whatever reason, stopped winning. A goodly chunk of that talent is headed toward Music City, USA. This doesn’t mean the Falcons of Fontenot and Smith are conceding. Think of Pitts as the best possible replacement, though he’s technically a tight end. Also note this: These men wouldn’t be here if the team hadn’t gone in the tank.

The Falcons’ past three seasons saw them go 7-9, 7-9 and 4-12. Over that time, they fired every coordinator. They finally got around to firing Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff. There’s no irreplaceable man when you’re losing, although Ryan comes close. This is the NFL, which is all about quarterbacks. This is also the league where every dollar paid one player is a dollar that can’t be spent on someone else. Keeping Jones for three more years left the Falcons with little roster wiggle room, and did we mention that he’s 32?

Go back to the spring of 2018. Ryan signed a $150 million extension that made him, albeit briefly, the NFL’s highest-paid player. The Falcons didn’t plan on redoing Jones’ contract, which had been redone in 2015 and made him, also briefly, the NFL’s highest-paid receiver. By 2018, seven wideouts had surpassed him in salary. He was less than pleased.

Jones skipped minicamp and was on the verge of missing the start of training camp, but he showed after the Falcons promised they’d take care of him. More than a year’s worth of haggling ensued, but on Sept. 7, 2019, the parties signed a $66-million extension. The next day, the Falcons lost their opener 28-12 in Minneapolis. They would lose seven of their first eight games.

In placating Jones, they’d pushed their payroll to the brink. Fontenot and Smith inherited a capped-out team that had also become a serial loser, which is the worst of both worlds. That said, this trade helps bring the Falcons back into plumb, at least financially, and that matters.

It’s a trade the Falcons didn’t want to make, but sometimes you’re forced to do something you’d rather not. If the Falcons of Fontenot/Smith plan to win over the long haul, they had to mitigate the monetary mistakes made by the previous regime. This lousy deal, as strange as it sounds, is a good start.