Perry: Why Julio Jones makes all the sense in the world for Pats originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
It's not often that the stars align the way they appear to be aligning for the Patriots.
They have a need.
One of the best players in the NFL is reportedly available to fill that need.
And though that player will be costly, the Patriots have money to spend.
The need is at receiver. The player is Julio Jones. The cost is Jones' base salary of $15.3 million and whatever the Falcons would require in a trade in order to send the face of their franchise packing.
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As a Patriots follower, this is one of those situations that may force you to reflexively say, "They wouldn't..." even though there's an abundance of evidence that would suggest they would.
Let's dig deeper into why.
STILL A FREAK
Jones is headed into his 32-year-old season yet remains one of the most difficult receivers to defend in today's NFL. He was third in football last season in yards per target (11.3) and he was seventh in receiving yards per game (85.7).
Jones dealt with injury in 2020, playing just nine games, but he's not been one to miss chunks of games at a time over the course of his career. Prior to last season he'd played in 15 games five times in the last six seasons. The one time he didn't? He played 14.
The injury that sidelined Jones last season was a hamstring, and it lingered for the majority of the year. With a full offseason to recover and recuperate the soft-tissue issue, Jones should still be among the game's best wideouts next season.
NEED IS THERE
Freak or not, the Patriots could use a threatening receiver.
As currently constructed, they look like they will be the owners of what might be the slowest 11-personnel (three receivers, one back, one tight end) package in the NFL.
The Patriots don't seem to care that they won't be fast relative to other NFL offenses, though. They've invested heavily in two free-agent tight ends. They've acquired some of the best after-the-catch pass-catchers in football, according to Next Gen Stats. And they'll want to run. A lot. They have an offensive line loaded with mauling run-blockers and a stable of hard-charging backs (not to mention two fullbacks at the moment) assembled to punish opposing defenses that are getting smaller and more athletic by the year.
But it's worth wondering if what they have in terms of receiving talent is enough for them to be as versatile as they'd like to be.
There are going to be situations when running the football will be difficult for the Patriots. In the first month of the 2021 season, they're scheduled to square off with three of the league's top-seven run defenses from 2020 (Jets in Week 2, Saints in Week 3, Bucs in Week 4). Imposing their will on the ground might not always be an option — particularly if defenses can load the box with bodies because free-agent acquisition Nelson Agholor is their lone down-the-field concern.
There are going to be situations when the Patriots are forced to throw when everyone knows they're forced to throw. In those obvious passing situations, the versatility provided by a tight-end-heavy attack fizzles. On third-and-medium (or longer), when there is no more guessing about whether or not the Patriots will run or throw out of 12-personnel sets, covering bigger-bodied tight ends gets simpler.
Agholor showed last season for the Raiders that he is a legitimate threat to create explosive plays. He was second in the league in yards per reception (18.7). But after him? The Patriots are lacking in receiver options who'd strike fear into opposing defensive coordinators.
Now consider what a Jones addition would mean for the group.
That would change the equation, not to mention the geometry of the defensive looks Josh McDaniels will be tasked with beating. Suddenly, instead of feeling comfortable with one safety deep to keep an eye on Agholor, defenses may feel as though they need two. That would remove one body from being committed to the running game, which would make it easier for Damien Harris and his blockers to be the bullies Belichick seems to want offensively.
No matter who is playing quarterback — Jones could be a security blanket for rookie Mac Jones or a contested-catch monster for Cam Newton — for former Alabama wideout would make his new offense a multi-dimensional passing attack. He'd make the Patriots more equipped to force defenses to guard "every blade of grass," a stated goal of theirs in the past.
The cost of acquiring Jones would be significant. But the value he'd bring in allowing the Patriots to adapt week to week — quarter to quarter, even — would be immeasurable.
FITTING HIM IN
This is the benefit of having very little money committed to the quarterback position.
Yes, there are massive questions surrounding the most important spot on the roster. But with Mac Jones on a rookie contract, Jarrett Stidham on a rookie contract, Brian Hoyer on a low-money deal and Newton guaranteed just $3.5 million, there is all kinds of money to play with to build up the rest of the roster.
Clearly that was the case this offseason. The Patriots attacked free agency in a way they never have before, adding ready-to-compete talent on the defensive line, at outside linebacker, tight end and receiver.
And Belichick still has cap space to play with.
The Patriots have about $15 million left in salary-cap room — more than they've typically taken into the regular season with Belichick running the show. Because of the top-51 rule, where Jones' salary would displace the lowest cap number currently on the Patriots roster, the team could acquire Jones for draft picks (with no salary going back to Atlanta) and still fit him under the cap.
That would leave the Patriots with almost no salary-cap room for their 2021 in-season expenditures, but they could free up more space by touching up Jones' deal. Per Miguel Benzan (@patscap on Twitter), the team could convert almost all of Jones' 2021 salary to a signing bonus to reduce his cap number for this season by almost $10 million.
Paying Jones a shade over $15 million this season is about what the Rams are paying Cooper Kupp ($15.8 million) and about what the Browns are paying Jarvis Landry ($15.1 million) on an average annual basis. In 2022 and 2023, Jones carries base salaries of $11.5 million, per Over the Cap. That would slot him just ahead of the $11 million-per-year rate Agholor is scheduled to be paid by the Patriots over the next two seasons. Those are more than reasonable figure for a player of Jones' caliber.
Technically, then, the dollars involved in a Jones deal don't make his acquisition prohibitive for the Patriots.
Whatever the Falcons require in a trade? That could be a different story.
The Falcons are in a bad spot in terms of their salary cap and it's been reported by multiple outlets — including NBC's Peter King and more recently The Athletic's Jeff Shultz — that Jones could be dealt to help Atlanta reset its books.
Still, one would think they'd want a haul for a player with a Hall-of-Fame resume.
If there are enough teams clamoring for Jones' services — the Colts, Titans, Ravens, Chargers and Niners could all be in on Jones — then the trade price could wind up being steep. Though it's worth pointing out that Schultz wrote this week, "a first-rounder seems unlikely" as a return for Jones. Before the draft, King suggested that a future second-round pick "seems fair."
If Jones is moved, it likely wouldn't happen until the beginning of June when the Falcons could spread out his dead-money cap hit over 2021 and 2022.
WOULD BELICHICK DO IT?
It's probably time to retire any argument against a potential Patriots move by saying, "That's just not what they do..."
What exactly won't they do?
There was a point in time when some believed they wouldn't draft a quarterback in the first round. Or a receiver in the first round. Or spend more guaranteed money in free agency than anyone in the history of the sport.
They've been a 3-4 defense, a 4-3 defense, "big nickel" defense and a heavy dime defense. They've a zone coverage team and a man-to-man coverage team. They've been a two-back offense, a two-tight-end offense and a spread offense. They've set passing records. They've turned back the clock and pounded teams into submission with their running game.
They've traded a first-round pick for a receiver. They've traded a second-round pick for half of one season of a receiver. They've traded a second-round pick for a running back and then paid that running back top dollar going into his 31-year-old season. They made a 31-year-old receiver the fourth highest-paid player at his position.
The reality is, there is no one definitive Belichickian modus operandi. He's adapted. He's changed. He's valued different portions of his roster depending on what he believes it needs in order to be the kind of team he wants.
The only North Star when it comes to Belichick and his team-building process? He wants to win. Desperately. A healthy Jones, there is no doubt, would help him toward that end.