Falcons at crossroads after Julio Jones trade, Broncos locked in on QB bet

This week, we survey NFL executives on where the Falcons go after trading Julio Jones, dives into the Broncos passing on a quarterback and much more.

The Atlanta Falcons did what was painful but necessary Sunday, trading arguably the greatest player in franchise history, wide receiver Julio Jones, to the Tennessee Titans.

Sources inside the league are split on where they believe Atlanta goes from here.

“They had to get rid of him now,” a veteran personnel evaluator tells FanSided. “With a new head coach, a new general manager, and a new culture going in, the last thing you want is a disgruntled veteran leader who is highly, highly respected by teammates in that locker room, especially during training camp. Everybody feeds off him. If it’s inevitable, and your owner is on board, do it. Make the trade.”

New general manager Terry Fontenot did exactly that, Sunday, shipping Jones and a 2023 sixth-round pick to the Titans in exchange for a second-round pick in next year’s NFL Draft, as well as a fourth-round pick in 2023, ending an era in Atlanta and bringing many questions to the fore.

Jones gives Tennessee improved odds to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, and his departure leaves Atlanta at a crossroads.

“They need to get out of cap hell next year, try to build around Matt Ryan over the next two years,” a current NFC personnel executive tells FanSided. “And pray.”

Many NFL scouts say Jones remains the league’s premier wide receiver after averaged 85 receptions for 1,289 yards and six touchdowns through the first 10 seasons of his career. However, Atlanta ended up moving on following a decade’s worth of poor drafting and mismanagement of the cap.

For Fontenot, the Jones deal represents a significant step towards cleaning up the significant mess left behind by his predecessor, Thomas Dimitroff.

During Dimitroff’s 13 seasons as Atlanta’s general manager, the only players the Falcons chose in the NFL Draft who eventually became First-Team All-Pro selections were Jones, linebacker Vic Beasley, and quarterback Matt Ryan.

Now, with Ryan about to enter his 13th season at age 36, the Falcons have approached a fork in the road when it comes to trying to piecemeal a roster around the three-time Pro Bowl quarterback or tear it down and start from scratch.

“If I’m the Falcons, I’m ripping the Bandaid off and going full rebuild,” an AFC scout tells FanSided. “Draft a quarterback next year and use the picks from the Julio trade to rebuild. You can’t try to win now and try to rebuild now. That’s how you wind up in purgatory.”

For the Falcons, though, it isn’t that easy.

When Atlanta passed on quarterback Justin Fields with the No. 4 overall pick, choosing Kyle Pitts, the Falcons were signaling they believe they can win now.

That’s one risky and one super-expensive proposition.

Especially for a Falcons franchise that now finds itself with just $16.14 million in cap space this season and $15.65 million in projected cap space in 2022, 11th-lowest in the league.

In the interim, the NFC executive believes all hope is not lost for the Falcons, even after Jones’ departure.

“They have some pieces,” the executive says. “Their offensive line is solid, for the most part. Ryan, (Calvin) Ridley, and Pitts are a nice trio. Grady Jarrett, A.J. Terrell and Deion Jones are nice pieces on defense. The cupboard isn’t completely bare. Ryan and a new coach will make up for some of that team’s deficiencies.”

But, if the Falcons instead decide to tear it all down and try to trade Ryan, eyeing a rookie quarterback on a rookie contract in 2022 in an offense with Ridley and Pitts, the price would add up quickly.

By trading Ryan post-June 1, the move would trigger a $24.9 million dead-cap charge while freeing up $23.7 million spending flexibility.

“Everything about Atlanta’s future depends on how Matt Ryan plays,” the evaluator says. “I think Matt has at least two or three really good years left. You have to protect him, give him some personnel around him so he doesn’t have to do it all by himself.”

Trading Jones freed up cap space for the Falcons in 2022, but they’ll absorb a large dead cap hit this season, which certainly complicates the already difficult prospects of rebuilding on the fly around Ryan.

“Matt can still play,” the evaluator believes. “If you gave me the chance to start Matt Ryan or a journeyman like Ryan Fitzpatrick, give me Matt Ryan every time. What the Falcons should do is take the money freed up by trading Julio and invest it in the best offensive tackle free agent this offseason and take a tackle in the first-round. You can win with what they have.

“But here’s the thing, they have to, absolutely have to hit on free agency and the NFL Draft the next couple years. They have to. They haven’t done that for a long time, and that’s why they have a new GM and a new head coach.”

For all of the uncertainty the Falcons face, Tennessee elevated its chances of winning a Super Bowl this season.

The Titans get to drop Jones into an offense that already features A.J. Brown, who caught 70 passes for a career-high 1,075 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, and running back Derrick Henry who will be going for his third consecutive rushing title.

“You’re gambling bigger than life because of the contract you’re paying Julio and crossing your fingers he stays healthy,” the evaluator says. “But just look at their odds, Las Vegas gave the Titans better odds to win the Super Bowl after the trade, after acquiring one player … Who isn’t a quarterback. Julio is special. This trade is a big-time win for Tennessee.”

Surtain a defensive centerpiece in Denver

The Denver Broncos are all-in on rookie cornerback Patrick Surtain.

They better be.

After all, Denver chose the former Alabama cornerback No. 9 overall in last month’s NFL Draft over the likes of quarterbacks Justin Fields and Mac Jones, despite much uncertainty at the position as Drew Lock enters a make-or-break third season.

As a rookie, Surtain has the potential to round out a secondary that has the upside of being among the stingiest in the league. Justin Simmons is an elite safety, while newcomer Kyle Fuller provides an elite corner who is coming off a 65-tackle season with one interception. Alongside Simmons, Kareem Jackson forms one of the league’s top safety duos, after the 33-year-old produced an 80.4 overall grade from PFF with 97 tackles and an interception last season.

If the Broncos weren’t going to take Fields or Jones, dropping Surtain into that secondary is a natural counter-punch to Denver’s AFC West rivals and the supporting casts around Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and Los Angeles Chargers’ star Justin Herbert.

Broncos general manager George Paton made a significant bet that his young talent on both sides of the ball can offset how ever far away Lock is from developing into a franchise quarterback … If he ever does.

But, how good can Surtain be? An NFC personnel executive recently told FanSided Surtain is “really legit, with the upside of being as good or better Jeffrey Okudah.”

Through rookie minicamp and a handful of OTA practices, Surtain is already turning heads among defensive teammates.

“I’m very impressed by Patrick Surtain,” Broncos linebacker Malik Reed told me during an appearance on FanSided’s The Matt Lombardo Show podcast. “He seems like he’s been picking it up from Day 1. Everything seems really natural for him. He’s always around the ball, and right up on the receiver every time they throw the ball his way. He’s really fluid.

“It’s amazing to see a young guy, especially a cornerback, who is so well-polished like that.”

During his three seasons in Tuscaloosa, Surtain notched 116 total tackles, six tackles for loss, intercepted four passes, returned one for a touchdown, and broke up 24 more.

There is no arguing Surtain was among the most gifted cornerback prospects, in a historically deep class at the position. Denver’s biggest problem, though, is that he doesn’t play quarterback.

Ironically, Lock or Teddy Bridgewater might prove to be the weak link that holds the Broncos back from a postseason berth, given young pass-catchers such as Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, Tim Patrick, K.J. Hamler and Noah Fant on offense, and a defense that is loaded with talent at all three levels, including Surtain.

Reed has high hopes for Lock, despite the fact Lock led the league with 15 interceptions last season and passed for just 2,933 yards and 16 touchdowns for a 75.4 passer rating.

“Drew has this confidence and this swagger,” Reed says. “He really believes in himself. That’s where it starts for every player on the field.”

If Lock can live up to that swagger and self-belief in his third season, the Broncos are gifted enough to make a run in the AFC, and reinforce that Surtain over Fields or Jones was right call on draft night.

But, should Lock falter again, well, it might be a long time until the Broncos are again in a position to draft an elite quarterback prospect.

The gifted stars on both sides of the ball Paton and the Broncos have assembled might be just good enough to win enough games to push Denver out of the top-10 picks for the foreseeable future, but not quite great enough to overcome mediocre quarterback play. A necessity in the modern NFL if winning a Super Bowl is the goal.

Whether Denver has enough talent to surprise in the AFC will be one of the NFL’s more fascinating storylines in 2021 and beyond. Picking Surtain just might determine the trajectory of the franchise for years to come.

Podcast

Quotable

“I’ve got his back through everything so he knows that, at the end of the day, if there’s ever a wonder of he’s lost a teammate or something because of all that’s come out, he knows where I stand.”

– Green Bay Packers receiver Davante Adams, via ESPN’s Rob Demovsky

Adams once again throws his support behind Aaron Rodgers, as the stare down between the reigning MVP and the Packers’ organization continues to intensify.

Speaking with sources around the league this week was the first time I came away feeling not only might this situation drag on through training camp, but there’s a real possibility Rodgers sits out the 2021 season.

For Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst, people close to him believe he feels this is personal and an opportunity to stand his ground and by his convictions. Gutekunst believes in Jordan Love — which he better if he’s willing to move on from one of the greatest quarterbacks currently walking the planet that led his franchise to the doorstep of the Super Bowl the past two seasons.

If Rodgers returns, even a day before the regular season opener against the New Orleans Saints, the Packers are a team capable of winning 13 games and emerging as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ biggest threat to repeat. Without him? Green Bay might not win more than seven games, even if Love proves Gutenkunst prophetic.

But, the expectation around Green Bay is that this situation gets uglier before it gets better, and preparations are bing made for a training camp without Rodgers.

As we discussed in this space last week, the Packers are likely thrilled that Love is getting all of the reps in Rodgers’ absence. However, as reports surfaced that Love “struggled with accuracy” during Tuesday’s mandatory minicamp practice, Green Bay loses some leverage.

Leverage only matters, though, if there is truly a negotiation, and it seems possible both sides are so dug in that an exit strategy rather than compromise might be on the table for both Rodgers and the Packers.

Final thought

The Buccaneers are in the midst of one of the more forward-thinking offseasons in recent NFL history, and Monday secured stability for years to come in their defense of the Lombardi Trophy by signing general manager Jason Licht to a contract extension and increasing the size of head coach Bruce Arians’ paycheck.

Licht’s vision and Arians’ salesmanship were instrumental in the Buccaneers luring Tom Brady from the comfort six Super Bowl championships with the New England Patriots to the opportunity to start over with the Buccaneers.

Never before in the salary cap era has a Super Bowl champion returned all 22 starters, until Tampa Bay does so this September. Licht was able to lower Brady’s cap number, bring back every piece to the Buccaneers’ championship puzzle, and made Arians whole by giving him a well-deserved raise.

Arians is one of the NFL’s premier head coaches, with a roster at his disposal that includes four All-Pros, and he might be the second-most important piece to a Tampa title repeat to Brady.

It was obvious last season, as the Buccaneers rattled off nine straight victories following a Week 12 defeat before ultimately hoisting the Lombardi in their home stadium that Arians’ ability to build a culture on a team so mixed with homegrown talent and high-priced acquisitions was essential to Tampa’s Super Bowl success.

Beyond 2021’s title defense, Tampa Bay is deftly positioned with over $24.6 million in cap space, built a foundation for sustained competitiveness, and clearly has established itself as a free agent destination for years to come.

Now, with Licht and Arians providing almost unprecedented stability in the modern NFL, it is difficult not to view the Buccaneers as a favorite to return to the Super Bowl and perhaps repeat as champions.

Matt Lombardo is FanSided’s National NFL Insider and writes Between The Hash Marks each Wednesday. Email Matt: Matt.Lombardo@FanSided.com, Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattLombardoNFL