The NFL’s big summer blockbuster dropped on Sunday and NFLTR Review has you covered breaking down the Julio Jones trade:
- Why the Falcons couldn’t do better than a second-round pick
- Should the Titans be worried about the wheels falling off Jones?
- What history says about 32-year-old receivers
The Big Picture: Julio Jones & NFL Mortality
After weeks of buildup, the long-awaited Julio Jones trade went down on Sunday. The Falcons sent Jones to the Titans, the team that always made the most sense, in exchange for a second-round pick in 2022 and turning a sixth into a fourth in 2023.
As the NFL universe absorbed the details of the blockbuster deal, a common reaction emerged. That’s it?
Jones is well on his way to a berth in the Hall of Fame when he decides to stop playing. He ranks No. 20 on the all-time receiving yards leaderboard and was named to the all-decade team for the 2010s. He’s been the physical prototype for receivers for a generation and is one of the best athletes to ever suit up at the position.
So why could the Falcons barely get more for Jones than they did for Mohamed Sanu a couple of years ago?
Setting aside the fact the Patriots horribly overpaid for Sanu, the market just wasn’t there for Jones this offseason. Teams were wary of investing too much in a 32-year-old wideout who missed seven games in 2020 and was due $15.3 million in 2021 — even if that receiver is one of the best of his generation. The Falcons tried hard to spin it but they never had a clean first-round pick on the table for Jones. The Titans’ offer was the best they had.
Now we get to see if the Titans were smarter than the rest of the league and took advantage of a golden opportunity — or if other teams dodged a bullet. The conventional wisdom is that players decline as they get older but there’s some precedent for elite receivers playing at a high level deep into their 30s. Larry Fitzgerald and Steve Smith are some notable recent examples.
The question of whether there are any signs of decline with Jones is complicated. He obviously missed a significant amount of time last year with a hamstring injury, and he hasn’t practiced much during the week for years as he managed foot and knee issues.
Those nagging injuries haven’t held him back when he’s been on the field, though. FiveThirtyEight did an analysis of Jones’ 2020 season and found that he was still hitting similar top speed marks when he was healthy as he had when he was dominating in previous seasons. At 31, Jones was still just as elite an athlete as he was at 28.
— Josh Hermsmeyer (@friscojosh) June 2, 2021
But it’s fair to wonder if the injuries last season were a sign of Jones’ body starting to fail him. Adam Harstad of FootballGuys.com has done some great research on how players age and decline. His focus is fantasy football but it does have application here and is worth reading in great detail. Harstad contends that players don’t slowly fade but instead reach their peak and continue to produce at or near that level until suddenly falling off. Or in other words, players don’t decline, they fall off a cliff.
Harstad says to think of each season as a coinflip on whether a player will maintain his production or fall off. When players are younger, it’s obviously much more likely they maintain their peak production. As they age, there is a greater and greater chance they hit that cliff, but it’s not impossible to keep flipping heads and to keep playing.
To visualize this, Harstad uses the example of mortality tables, a tool used by life insurance companies to measure the risk of someone dying in any given year and how many years on average they can be expected to live before cashing out on the policy. He’s created NFL mortality tables to show what the risk is of a player precipitously falling off in a given year and on average how many years of their career they have left.
For established receivers, there’s a 27 percent chance to hit the cliff at 32. The average expected remaining years is 1.64. This isn’t saying anything definitive about what will happen with Jones in 2021 but it does provide a historical reference for the risk the Titans are taking on.
Another way to look at it would be if we took Pro Football Reference’s similar players metric to look at a group of Jones’ peers and how the end of their careers played out. That also paints an uncertain picture.
*Columns are Pro Football Reference’s adjusted value
- At 32, just four of the 14 players had seasons of double-digit AV
- At 33, the pool shrunk to 11 players, only two of which cracked double-digit AV
- Three players hit double digits at 34 with just nine remaining in the NFL
- By 35, just six of the initial 14 players were active and none hit double digits
Rarely did players level off, their decline came swiftly and with little warning. That’s already a red flag for Jones with his major dropoff in 2021. But while rare, it was not unprecedented for extenuating circumstances to look like a false cliff. Reggie Wayne’s numbers fell off the year between Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck. Terrell Owens’ issues in his year 32 season were all off the field. Fitzgerald rebounded from a three-year lull to lead the league in receptions at 33.
Jones is his own player and his career is independent from everyone else’s on this list. There’s a wide range of outcomes that are possible, including a dramatic dropoff or a return to elite-level production. Jones has never finished a season without double-digit AV as long as he’s avoided major injury.
The chart above suggests he might be hard-pressed to repeat that feat. When assessing this deal for both sides, this is important context. There’s a good chance Jones’ value would have sunk even more had the Falcons not pulled the trigger, and a second-round pick is still a decent asset.
Meanwhile, the logic for the Titans in making this deal is obvious. They’re in the middle of a window to compete and we’ve seen the impact adding a bona fide No. 1 receiver can have for teams. However, history shows Tennessee might not be getting the second alpha to pair with A.J. Brown that they think they are.
This Week In Football
- To wrap up the Julio story, the Titans explored doing something with Jones’ deal, but instead pulled the restructure lever on QB Ryan Tannehill’s deal to clear the necessary space. Tennessee added void years to make it $18 million in savings. Something to note with Jones is while he has base salaries in the $11 million range after this season, if he plays well, he’s going to want a raise from that. Even if the Titans dodge snake eyes this year, they still could end up backing themselves into a corner.
- In non-Julio-related news, there’s another situation brewing in Arizona that could lead to a blockbuster trade. Cardinals OLB Chandler Jones missed the bulk of last season with a pectoral injury but before that he had been one of the NFL’s most prolific pass rushers. He’s entering a contract year and has no guaranteed money left on his deal, while Arizona has backed up the Brinks truck to bring in DeAndre Hopkins and J.J. Watt. Jones has to be wondering where the loyalty is for him, and skipped minicamp to send a message. Right now this situation is just a quiet bubble but it has the potential to boil up if not addressed.
- Russell Wilson spoke publicly for the first time since he ignited a controversy with his pointed comments earlier in the offseason aimed at the Seahawks front office. He did what he could to try and quash that, saying he never technically requested a trade and would love to remain in Seattle. However, he also didn’t dispute the trade wish list his agent released, saying at one point it looked like a trade was a real possibility and he wanted to have a voice. Ultimately, we’re still in the same spot with Wilson. If his frustrations aren’t addressed or remain at the end of the 2021 season, Seattle will be in the same spot again and probably worse.
- Leave it to the Saints to whip out a new way to finagle the cap. With almost zero space to sign their draft class, most thought New Orleans would need to negotiate an extension with either S Marcus Williams, RT Ryan Ramczyk or CB Marshon Lattimore to make room. That obviously gave that trio some negotiating power working off the franchise tag in Williams’ case and the fifth-year option for Lattimore and Ramczyk. But New Orleans took Lattimore’s option, turned it into a roster bonus and added void years to spread it out. The move gave Lattimore more money up front, cleared space to sign the draft class and doesn’t handicap the Saints’ ability to still sign Lattimore long-term.
- The Buccaneers gave HC Bruce Arians a well-deserved raise after a Super Bowl championship while also signing GM Jason Licht to a multi-year extension. Licht should probably buy Arians lunch every day too, as the coach basically saved his job. It’s worth pointing out at the time the Buccaneers hired Arians in 2019, Licht’s record as general manager was 27-53 with no playoff appearances. He instantly got an extension for recruiting Arians and to his credit, Licht has been nearly flawless since Arians came on board.
- Todd Gurley continued his free agency tour with a visit to the Ravens. Baltimore is pretty deep at running back but they have used three runners in the past and Gurley would be landing in a terrific scheme. He also visited the Lions so it might come down to what the best offer is, as this very well could be the last contract Gurley signs as his career nears the brink.
- The Ravens made another interesting move this week, signing former Broncos OT Ja’Wuan James to a two-year deal that can be worth up to $9 million but only includes $500,000 guaranteed. Essentially Baltimore is paying James to rehab this year with the gamble he can be a contributor for them at right tackle in 2022. It’s a shrewd move, as the Ravens get to monitor James’ rehab and if they’re comfortable with how it progresses, his base salary is only $2.5 million in 2022. That’s minimal risk if James gets anywhere close to where he was as a solid starting right tackle.
- Summer is usually extension season and a couple of minor ones came down the pipe. The Seahawks locked up P Michael Dickson to a four-year deal, which keeps one of the league’s better punters in Seattle. Baltimore also continued to stay active, re-signing RB Gus Edwards to a two-year, $10 million extension. Edwards is a phenomenal fit in the Ravens’ offense and a real thunder option to J.K. Dobbins’ lightning.
- The free agency pool continued to be whittled down, as the Vikings added CB Bashaud Breeland to compete for a job at outside corner in a secondary that remains a question mark. The Packers also added help on defense, signing LB De’Vondre Campbell who probably is an instant starter at inside linebacker on that defense.