FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — When it comes to Julio Jones’s absence from Falcons’ mandatory minicamp, everything is copasetic … for now.
On Monday, the day before camp started, Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff put out a respectful, short statement saying Jones wouldn’t be attending camps this week, that the team and Jones’s reps have had private conversations and that the team fully understands what Jones means to the team, the city and the fans. Head coach Dan Quinn followed it up the next day by saying that sometimes football and business intersect and that no one doubts how great of a teammate Jones is.
And so quarterback Matt Ryan did not stray from those lines on Wednesday.
“I understand that there’s a business side to this sport, too. I don’t like getting involved in other people’s business. I know I don’t like speaking about my business, so it’s not my place to get into that,” said the 2016 NFL MVP, who signed a well-earned five-year, $150-million contract extension last month. “As far as drama or anything like that, he’s one of the best teammates you could ever be around. He’s one of the most unselfish players. He’s all about winning, and those are the things that you love.”
It’s difficult to find someone within the franchise who actually thinks that Jones, the other-worldly talent with three years left on his deal, won’t line up against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 1. The MMQB’s Andy Benoit wrote how Jones’s holdout must play out, so let me add to that.
First, there’s no doubt Jones believes he’s the best receiver in the league. Many would agree, and any doubters would have him at No. 2. Antonio Brown is the league’s highest-paid receiver at $17 million per year, with Jones making an average salary of $14.25 million on his deal but only $11.475 million on the remainder of his deal. Using this logic, that’s nearly a $6-million-per-year gap standing between the team and Jones.
Also, there are seven NFL wide receivers who will earn a higher average salary than Jones in 2018, but not a single one is as accomplished as the Falcons wideout, a five-time Pro Bowler who holds the all-time single-season receiving reciving record. As good as Jarvis Landry, Sammy Watkins and Davante Adams are, their resumes don’t sniff what Jones has put together.
At 29 years old and with a history of lower leg injuries, Jones is rightfully looking to secure the bag. His importance to how this offense runs is undeniable, even if he only had one red-zone touchdown last season.
“He’s great for our organization and our team,” Ryan said. “They’ll resolve [Jones’s contract dispute] and get those things worked out.”
What’s standing in Jones’s way is the amazing precedent the Falcons organization would set by re-doing a deal with three years left on it. Atlanta made him one of the highest-paid players ever at the position, and from a team perspective, re-doing the contract would not be good business.
But where the Falcons are truly hamstrung in Jones’s salary gulf is in taking care of their other players with just less than $10 million in cap space for this year. Dimitroff had to imagine that Jones would look for a new deal before it expired in 2021—he just likely didn’t expect it to happen before the ’18 season.
The Falcons are hoping to lock up three key players (though none as key as Jones) to long-term deals before the start of the season. Left tackle Jake Matthews is playing on the fifth-year option this season, so a deal shouldn’t raise his 2018 cap figure much higher than the already established $12.49 million. Former fifth-round pick Grady Jarrett is in the last year of his rookie deal, one that’s seen him get eight sacks in three seasons and three sacks against Tom Brady in Super Bowl LI. And free safety Ricardo Allen signed his second-round tender for $2.9 million this year, but Atlanta needs to get the quarterback of their secondary locked into a longer deal before the season.
“It’s paid off a little bit,” Allen said Wednesday when talking about the work it’s taken to get from practice squad to now. “It hasn’t paid off fully.”
For now, the Falcons will roll with wideouts Mohamed Sanu and rookie Calvin Ridley, who they slid into the slot Wednesday to see his versatility. About a month after the Falcons wrap up camp Thursday, Ryan will host about 12 of his pass-catchers for their annual pre-training camp trip, and he expects Jones to be part of that.
So everyone is showing a good face now with Jones absent because truthfully, he’s not missing any meaningful time right now. He knows this offense no matter what wrinkles Steve Sarkisian may or may not put in this offseason. The tens of thousands of dollars of fines would probably be waived by the team later like so many teams do nowadays.
Asked, though, if there’d be a point where he’d get concerned about Jones returning to the team, Ryan brushed it off quickly.
“I’ve been through this before with other players,” Ryan said. “It’s part of it. I’m confident he’ll be ready to go when he gets here.”
Indeed, when he gets here is the question.