Like 90% of the world’s bachelorette parties, Julio Jones is headed to Nashville. (Give me a break, it’s a Sunday.) ESPN’s Dianna Russini reported the long-awaited trade would be worked out with the Tennessee Titans and the compensation appears to be a 2022 second-round pick and 2023 fourth-round pick in exchange for Jones and a 2023 sixth-round pick.
Tennessee will be taking on all of Jones’s salary, which makes sense. There was a report earlier in the weekend that some teams were reluctant to offer a high draft pick while also asking Atlanta to pick up some of the money left on Jones’s deal. That never made sense because of the circumstances in which Atlanta found itself in with the need to make the trade in the first place. The Falcons were in a position where they needed to clear cap for 2021 and beyond and a Jones trade — aided by the reported trade request from the receiver himself — was the easiest path to clearing the most money.
That cost clearly drove down the price. The Titans will take on the entire $15.3 million guaranteed salary for 2021 and there is some work that will need to be done on Tennessee’s side. Per Over The Cap, the Titans only have $3.4 million in cap space, the third-least in the league, but Tennessee has the flexibility to move some money around — something the Falcons didn’t have to open up space. A new deal could also be in the works, something that could make sense for both sides. The deal could lower Jones’s cap hit for 2021 and give him more future guarantees than just the $2 million he has left for 2022.
Now, for just a second-round pick and a 2023 pick swap, the Titans get one of the league’s best wide receivers, even at the age of 32. Last season, Jones was sixth in yards per route run among wide receivers who saw at least 50 targets.
When we broke down three of the most fun trade destinations for Jones last week, the Titans weren’t on the list. That doesn’t mean this isn’t fun. Jones and A.J. Brown together instantly makes for one of the league’s best receiving duos. But ideas of “this is a no-brainer for the Titans” and “there are still questions about how much this actually moves the needle for the Titans as a top contender” are not mutually exclusive. The Julio Jones trade straddles that line.
Of course, there are a ton of pros in this deal. Before the trade, either Josh Reynolds or rookie Dez Fitzpatrick was going to be the No. 2 receiver for Tennessee. We don’t have to spend a lot of time diving into how that’s going to be an upgrade for the Titans.
Jones would fit well into any offense, but his strengths fit with what the Titans have done with Ryan Tannehill over the past two seasons. Tannehill has been one of the league’s best intermediate throwers. While his first year of that type of production in Tennessee looked like a career outlier due for regression, and some numbers did fall, Tannehill followed that up with similar success in 2020. Among 31 quarterbacks with at least 50 attempts between 11-19 air yards in 2020, Tannehill ranked 11th in on-target rate, eighth in completion percentage, and eighth in the rate of plays that produced positive EPA, according to Sports Info Solutions.
That intermediate game, often off of play-action, has been a big part of the Tennessee passing game. Tannehill was one of nine quarterbacks to have at least 100 attempts to that depth last season. Here’s the Titans’ heatmap under Tannehill for the past two seasons:
Last season, Jones ranked first in EPA per target and fourth in total EPA among 47 receivers with at least 20 targets between 11-19 air yards. A league-leading 77.3% of Jones’s intermediate targets produced positive EPA in 2020.
This would be a more seamless transition if the Titans still had the same offense heading into 2021. But the success of the past two seasons got former offensive coordinator Arthur Smith hired to be the head coach of the Falcons.
Todd Downing is now the offensive coordinator in Tennessee and it’s unclear exactly what this offense will look like. Downing was previously an offensive coordinator for the Oakland Raiders in 2017. That team finished 13th in offensive DVOA but 19th in weighted DVOA, meaning it got worse as the season went on.
Tennessee did see one of the lowest rates of two-deep coverage — they had the sixth-fewest dropbacks against those looks — and that might not be possible if an opposing defense needs to worry about both Brown and Jones on the outside. That duo also gives a greater margin for error in play design. So many big Corey Davis plays opposite Brown, especially in 2020, came on perfectly designed concepts to get wide-open space. That’s not as necessary with Jones, who can dominate corners on his own.
Even with one of the most efficient passing offenses, the Titans have been a run-heavy team over the past two seasons. Only the Ravens had a higher run rate on early downs than the Titans last season. That was sustainable at the time for two reasons — Derrick Henry was a freak and the Titans averaged 8.5 yards per attempt when they did throw in those situations.
Henry’s sustainability will be a big key to this offense in 2021. Henry had a league-leading 378 carries in the regular season last year with another 18 carries in the playoffs. It’s the first time since DeMarco Murray in 2014 that a running back eclipsed 370 carries, a mark Football Outsiders highlighted as a warning sign for the following season.
In an era when even bellcow backs aren’t getting that big of a workload, Henry’s 2020 carry total is something to monitor. Historically backs who carry the ball and see that much punishment experience injury or play decline in the following season. If the running game is still going to be leaned on heavily, but the efficiency isn’t there, that will put an incredible strain on the offense.
Now the passing game could be able to make up for it, but if that shift is needed, how quickly will that happen in real-time?
There is also a question of the defense in Tennessee. It was one of the worst units in the league last season (29th in DVOA) and while there were improvements, there are still questions. The cornerback group is completely reworked with Janoris Jenkins and Caleb Farley slotted as the starters. The pass rush, which was nonexistent last season, got a boost in free agency from the signings of Bud Dupree, though off a torn ACL, and Denico Autry. Still, a lot needs to go right for that defense to be average in 2021.
Tennessee gets the benefit of playing in a weak division with questions or a rookie at all the other quarterback spots. That should still make them the favorite to win the AFC South, but this team might not be quite as close to the other top contenders in the conference as adding an All-World receiver might appear to make them.