The Atlanta Falcons just wrapped up the second week of organized team activities Friday in Flowery Branch, and still, the franchise’s top player and one of the NFL’s most prolific wide receivers remains missing from team functions for reasons that many still won’t completely accept.
NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported earlier that Julio Jones, entering his eighth season with the Falcons, elected to skip this fraction of team offseason workouts because he’s leveraging an updated version of his current contract. Jones denied those reports, reassuring fans and reporters his future is with the Falcons.
“There’s no story to be told,” Jones told TMZ in a May 27 interview. “I’m just working on getting myself better. I’m just working on myself right now. That’s all that is. There’s no bad blood between me and the team or anything like that.”
This development with Jones just shows the window of opportunity of reaching another Super Bowl is still technically open but not for much longer (my projection is another two years). The talents originally assembled by general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Dan Quinn aren’t getting any younger, and there’s no telling how long Quinn’s “Brotherhood” will hold.
Like many organizations within the league, the Falcons’ philosophy will be tested by cap space, health and time.
Matt Ryan’s handsome contract talks with Atlanta could have started the conversation. The 33-year-old franchise quarterback inked a new five-year deal that includes $100 million guaranteed, making him the league’s highest paid signal-caller for the time being — or until Aaron Rodgers get his payday with Green Bay.
As for Jones, it’s baffling that his massive five-year, $71.2-million deal signed back in 2015 makes him only the eighth-highest paid receiver in the league today, which is enough reason to assume the superstar would demand a restructured contract behind closed doors. He has three years left in the deal and is owed $10.5 million in base salary for 2018.
I’m still going to side with Jones on this one. He said himself he’s not going anywhere, and this is just another attempt to add juice to the dry NFL offseason. Quite frankly, August just can’t get here soon enough.
But for a playmaker who has maintained a top-five positional ranking and is just 946 yards shy of 10,000 for his career, Jones’ timeline of events in the last eight weeks has been uncharacteristically dispiriting.
The first was his recent social media cleanse, so to speak — unfollowing his teammates while deleting photos from past seasons and switching his accounts to private. It sparked speculation that the All-Pro wideout was unhappy with the team, eliciting trade rumors and ridiculous accusations of jealousy toward recent first-round draft pick Calvin Ridley.
Then came the second stunner, when he announced to the team he would not be attending OTAs.
And on Friday, a trending snapshot of Jones and Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton on Twitter added more spice to the storyline as the pair participated in a celebrity kickball tournament to benefit the Cam Newton Foundation, transpiring on the same day his Falcon teammates worked out in Flowery Branch.
Yet Ryan, who communicates with his top target on a regular basis, said Jones’ absence is a non-issue. Ryan also told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution it’s easy for him and Jones to get on the same page, and “when he’s healthy things are good.”
Jones has dealt with nagging foot and toe injuries in the past. Foot surgery prior to last year’s minicamp forced the veteran to miss a fraction of offseason activities before training camp.
“With where he’s at in his career, his familiarity with the offense, his understanding of the timing, rhythm — all those things with me — I think if anybody can get back on the same page fast, it’s him,” Ryan said following Wednesday’s workout in Flowery Branch. “Julio knows our offense, he knows where to line up. He knows what route combinations we’re going to run, the details of the route. Hell, he teaches a lot of our guys the routes, too.”
Quinn also brushed off follow-up questions surrounding Jones’ whereabouts, informing the media at the start of OTAs that he was fully aware Jones will not return until the team’s mandatory minicamp June 12-14.
“No issues on our end,” said Quinn during post-practice interviews Wednesday. “I know he’s working really hard. I’ve had contact with him obviously. Can’t wait to get him back here with the guys. He’s really putting good work in and I think we’ll see the results of that work.”
Again, this will be Jones’ eighth season in the league, and all should know by now that Jones isn’t one to create locker room chatter or disrupt the flow of team dynamics. Jones has been nothing less than professional, letting his resume speak for everything else.
Jones is coming off his fourth consecutive season of 1,000-plus receiving yards (his fifth overall), ranking second and third respectively in yards (1,444) and yards per game (95.3) for 2017. His 253-yard, two-touchdown gem against Tampa Bay last season was the third 250-plus yard performance of his career and the most of any active NFL receiver.
Let’s also not forget that it’s common for players to skip out on OTAs: Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, Zack Martin are a few other bigs names to be M.I.A. from voluntary team workouts this summer.
I see this portion of the offseason as a means to give the incoming rookie class its first real opportunity to shine on the practice field. Ryan said it himself earlier in the week that this is a crucial part of the season for the younger guys to find their footing.
First-round draft pick Calvin Ridley is one of those and, like Jones, is another Alabama pass-catcher believed to possess high upside at the start of his pro career. Ridley is projected to be another potent target for Ryan alongside wideouts Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Justin Hardy, Marvin Hall and tight end Austin Hooper; then there’s the running back tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
Coleman, in the final year of his rookie contract, could see a bigger role in the passing game beside Freeman, while rookie Ito Smith can earn his keep in the backfield as another jump-cut ball-carrier.
The offense itself should be one of the biggest talking points of the offseason — not the status of an updated contract for its star wideout. The Falcons are on the heels of an underwhelming 2017 campaign under then-first-year offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, during which Atlanta took a significant step back from its Super Bowl run in 2016. The Falcons ranked 23rd in red zone touchdown efficiency and were seventh in dropped passes.
They did, however, find a brief stride just in time to make the playoffs and roll to a first-round win over the Los Angeles Rams on the road earlier this year. Now in Year 2 of the Sarkisian experiment, it’s not ridiculous to think this franchise could find itself back on the rise.
Jones should be right there to guide Ridley and his fellow receivers come minicamp.
The other factor in the Falcons’ success will be the identity of their young defense, given Vic Beasley’s return to a full-time pass rush role, Takk McKinley’s increased workload and the rookie class of defensive back Isaiah Oliver, tackle Deadrin Senat and linebacker Foyesade Oluokun. It will also be interesting to see how defensive tackle Grady Jarrett handles the load after Adrian Clayborn, now in New England, and Dontari Poe (Carolina) signed with new teams in free agency.
With inevitable offseason “noise” surrounding the NFL and rearing its ugly head, headlines much like Jones’ absence will certainly be a part of it. Instead of watching 22 men knock helmets and fight for extra yardage between the hashmarks for two-plus hours, you’ll get hot take-ridden debates about politics in sports, MJ versus LeBron and, occasionally on Sundays, you’ll see scrawny, unathletic looking figures in buttoned-up shirts roll a ball toward a set of pins on your TV screen.
For the time being, viewers deprived of football will be thrown a bone with coverage of the NBA Finals and hockey’s Stanley Cup. But even that has a short shelf life in the summer months.
But it’s also the perfect time to remind Falcons fans to not sweat the small stuff. August will come, and when Falcons owner Arthur Blank says Jones is a Falcon for life, you had best believe it.
Sarah Woodall is a sports writer for The Times. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @Woodall8Sarah on Twitter.