June 1 starts a new wave of NFL roster moves each season. With that date, signing bonuses for traded and released players can be split over two seasons instead of accelerated onto the current year’s cap. For teams making moves in order to clear the most space for the current season, that’s a huge help.
There isn’t a bigger example of that than the expected timing of a Julio Jones trade. If the Falcons had traded Jones before June 1, his remaining $23.25 million of prorated signing bonus would have counted on the 2021 cap. Against Jones’s current $23.05 million cap hit, the Falcons would have lost $200,000 in cap space. With a post-June 1 trade, only the $7.75 million of the signing bonus counts against the 2021 cap with the other $15.5 million pushed to 2022. For Atlanta, that would open up $15.3 million in 2021 and around $4 million in 2022. Since the Falcons are partially in this place because of a need for cap space, that proration split is necessary.
Now that a Jones trade makes more financial sense (at least as much as trading Julio Jones could), the transaction appears more likely to come soon.
For an interested team, more will go into the decision than asking “do we want Julio Jones?” The answer to that for 31 other teams should be yes — 32 if you count the Falcons. But it’s not that simple. With a $15.3 million guaranteed salary for a 32-year-old wide receiver in 2021, there are only a few teams that could fit that type of player on the roster. Only $2 million of Jones’s 2022 is guaranteed, which could spark a new contract and extension once he’s traded but it will still take the right situation to put that kind of deal on the books.
Even with that age and contract, whoever has Julio Jones on the roster will have a top-tier receiver. Among 87 wide receivers with at least 50 targets in 2020, Jones ranked sixth in yards per route run, according to Sports Info Solutions.
With a Jones trade on the horizon, let’s take a look at the most fun fits for the star receiver — not necessarily the most likely trade destinations — why they could work, and why they might not.
Why it would be fun: The Bills just cleared $7.8 million in 2021 cap space by restructuring the contract of Stefon Diggs. While that has been widely believed for a potential Zach Ertz trade, starting the process for a Jones trade. No team was more receiver-reliant than the Bills in 2020. 71% of their offensive snaps came in 11 personnel (three wide receivers) and another 15% came from 10 personnel (four wide receivers), which trailed only the Arizona Cardinals.
Lining up Julio Jones across from Stefon Diggs would arguably give the Bills the best receiving duo in the league. The addition of Diggs last season opened up the intermediate part of the field during Josh Allen’s breakout season. Among 47 receivers with at least 20 targets between 11-19 yards past the line of scrimmage, Diggs ranked 12th in EPA per target and first in total EPA. Jones ranked first in EPA per target and fourth in total EPA. A league-leading 77.3% of Jones’s intermediate targets produced positive EPA in 2020.
Diggs also did his most damage in 2020 as an isolated receiver. Diggs had a league-leading 76 targets as an ISO receiver. That resulted in 58 receptions, 789 yards, and two touchdowns in that alignment. He led the league in EPA and ranked fourth in yards per route run among 56 receivers with at least 10 targets while isolated.
Now imagine a defense planning to cover Diggs on one side when the trips side of the formation includes Jones, Cole Beasley, and Emmanuel Sanders. It would be nearly impossible for a defense to feel comfortable shading toward one side of the field or the other. Buffalo would face more two-deep coverages which would also help with a running game that struggled last season.
Gabriel Davis could be an interesting name here in a potential return for Atlanta. Davis is a second-year receiver who already showed the ability to play at the NFL level. With three years and $3.1 million left on his rookie deal, the Falcons could get back a cheap receiver to immediately fill in for the loss of Jones.
Why it might not work: While Buffalo has been no stranger to making a big swing at adding a star receiver, there is a lot of money that still needs to be accounted for in future years. With the Diggs restructure, he’s likely to receive an extension next offseason that will lower his 2022 cap hit. There’s also a Josh Allen extension that will probably start next season. As it stands now, the Bills only project to have under $8 million in 2022 cap space, according to Over The Cap.
Buffalo already has a deep wide receiving corps that has been propped up with cheaper options outside of Diggs. Investing that much money into one position, no matter how important, and further complicating future cap issues might not be the way this front office wants to proceed.
Los Angeles Chargers
Why it would be fun: Justin Herbert throwing to Julio Jones. Do we need more than that? Yes, probably. Herbert had a stellar rookie season and there are already some key improvements in place to ward off a potential sophomore slump. The Chargers are already more likely to have a higher rate of passes on early downs opposed to a more run-heavy approach in 2020. Now, add Jones to a pass-heavy approach that could open up more options for the offense.
Throughout Herbert’s rookie season, many of his passes were funneled toward the middle of the field. That makes sense considering how Keenan Allen mostly lines up in the slot and he deserves the most targets on the team. While throwing to the middle of the field, Herbert totaled 65.45 EPA on 338 pass attempts (0.19 EPA per attempt), according to SIS. While throwing to the outside, Herbert totaled 65 EPA on 241 attempts (0.27 EPA per attempt). The big difference was in success rate. On those throws to the middle of the field, 53.8% produced positive EPA while just 49.4% of throws to the outside did so. That positive play rate to the outside ranked 23rd out of 34 quarterbacks.
The addition of Jones could add to both the strengths and weaknesses there. Jones would primarily line up on the outside with the ability to win on those routes outside the numbers. The Chargers could steal some plays to open up more throws to the outside. In Atlanta, the Falcons liked to have Jones line up in the slot then motion in the outside receiver on Jones’s side. That typically left the corner defending Jones playing with inside leverage, which left a ton of space for Jones to break on an out.
Last year, Herbert struggled on out routes, 9-for-20 with 44 yards and an interception. He had the lowest EPA (-6.62) among 34 quarterbacks with at least 10 attempts.
There is also a strength-on-strength component here. Herbert killed on deep digs and that is a place where Jones continues to succeed.
A Jones-Allen-Mike Williams 11 personnel set would be another lineup that would be difficult for defenses to defend. Throw in Jared Cook and the Chargers would have legitimate intermediate-deep threats at every spot with Austin Ekeler out of the backfield.
Why it might not work: With a $15.7 million cap hit for Allen and a $15.68 million cap hit for Williams on his guaranteed fifth-option, the Chargers already have $31.4 million invested in their top two receivers for 2021. That alone would rank eighth in spending for an entire receiving corps this season, per Over The Cap. Adding in other receivers on the roster, the Chargers are sixth in receiver spending.
While Williams’s future is uncertain after the 2021 season, the Chargers might not want to have over $45 million funneled to three players at one position for the coming season. Without a change to the cap hits, the Jones-Allen-Williams contracts would top the current most expensive receiving corps in the league (Miami’s $45.4 million) on their own.
San Francisco 49ers
Why it would be fun: We’ve already seen what Julio Jones looks like in a Kyle Shanahan offense and that’s quite exciting. During that season, 47 players had at least 100 targets. Jones led that group with 3.3 yards per route run. The next highest player (Mike Evans) was at 2.5.
We shouldn’t expect that type of season from Jones in 2021 but adding his skillset to this current receiving corps would give something San Francisco does not currently have.
The 49ers roster is currently set up to maximize yards after the catch on shorter throws. That makes sense given Shanahan’s ability to scheme up separation plus the tendencies of Jimmy Garoppolo and the other fill-in quarterbacks to use the middle of the field in that way.
In 2020, only Alex Smith and Drew Brees had a lower average depth of target than Garoppolo among 44 quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts, per SIS. The short game has been a necessity for the 49ers, but it’s clearly something that could be improved.
Take a look at where 49ers targets have come over the past three seasons:
Now compare that to where Jones’s targets have come in the Atlanta offense over the past three seasons:
Add in an eventual change to Trey Lance at quarterback and those outside throws are going to be a bigger part of the offense. Adding Jones would add a legitimate threat to that part of the field while the likes of George Kittle, Deebo Samuel, and Brandon Aiyuk could continue on the short-intermediate spacing game to go along with all of the jet action within the offense.
Jones on the outside would unclog the middle of the field, making the passing offense less predictable while also opening up that area with maximum spacing thanks to the attention Jones would need from both a top corner and a safety on the outside.
The 49ers have the cap space to fit Jones’s deal as is and outside of Fred Warner don’t have many big contract extensions on the horizon. San Francisco could even free up over $20 million by moving Garoppolo in some capacity.
Why it might not work: An addition of Jones would force Shanahan into more three-receiver sets and out of the 21/12 personnel sets he has used to his advantage. Only two teams used less 11 personnel than the 49ers last season. Of course, the desire to play only two receivers at a time isn’t a reason to not trade for Julio Jones, but resource allocation could be taken into account in this situation.
The more pressing resource allocation could hinge on draft picks. After giving up multiple first-round picks to move up for Lance in the 2021 NFL Draft, the 49ers aren’t stocked with draft assets. They don’t have a first-round pick until 2024. San Francisco does have a 2022 second-round pick, but it’s unclear whether that will be enough to get a deal done on its own.
With depth continually needed for this team, the 49ers might choose to hold on to as much draft capital as possible in order to continue stocking the roster with cheap depth. San Francisco has not yet appeared to believe in the Los Angeles roster-building philosophy of parting with high draft picks for proven veteran stars.