Sometimes a big trade in the NFL surprises us. This was not one of those times. Julio Jones being traded out of Atlanta - not long ago unthinkable - came to pass when the Falcons and Titans agreed on a deal. This was not difficult to see coming as far back as February when the Falcons hired a new general manager and head coach and found themselves in such a bad spot with the cap that even after multiple restructures and cap cuts they still didn’t have enough cap room to sign their 2021 rookies. There was even speculation that they would trade down from #4 to have a first-round pick with a lower cap number to help with the predicaments. They didn’t trade down, and they did deal their signature player to balance the books. What does it mean for fantasy football?
Kyle Pitts, TE, ATL - There was an idea floating around that the Falcons took Pitts to give Matt Ryan one more shot at greatness with the best arsenal of weapons this side of Tampa Bay. Jeff Schultz of The Athletic dispelled that notion recently, writing:
“But any suggestion that drafting Pitts signaled that 2021 is some all-out, go-for-it season is just silly. Fontenot and Smith want to win, but they’re also trying to build a foundation for the future. So they’re not going to cut other starters to keep Jones, and they would rather not create more 2022 and 2023 cap problems. They drafted Pitts because they think he’s a special player, and they didn’t have a strong enough belief in quarterback Justin Fields to pick him fourth overall. It’s that simple.”
That should have been your cue to invest in Pitts in redraft because he was going to slot right into a foundational role in the offense if you didn’t already believe that. Pitts was the highest-drafted tight end ever and the first tight end to ever be drafted as the first non-quarterback, so all of the clues were there.
Pitts is a rock-solid TE4 in rankings now and no one should be surprised if he’s worth more than George Kittle in short order.
Calvin Ridley, WR, ATL - Ridley already looked like a budding #1 receiver last year when Jones missed about half of the season. He went over 100 yards in five of the seven games that Jones missed last year and averaged over seven receptions and 100 yards in those games. That pace would put him in the mix of the top 3-5 fantasy wide receivers with a shot to be #1. His value is undoubtedly up on this news.
Derrick Henry, RB, TEN - There’s a reasonable argument to take Henry at RB2 now. Teams are not going to be able to stack the box, the offense is going to be a lot better than it looked last week and better than it was for Henry’s 2000-yard season last year, and Jones tends to disappear in the red zone, where Henry is well-equipped to finish drives.
Ryan Tannehill, QB, TEN - Tannehill was already a high ceiling QB1 despite being a low-volume quarterback. Now with Julio Jones, he can surpass his previous efficiency levels. The Titans defense retooled this year, but they also lost their defensive coordinator to Atlanta, so chances are Tannehill will get into more shootouts than the Titans would like once again, but now he won’t be outgunned in the passing game.
Russell Gage, WR, ATL - Gage is likely to slide into the starting spot vacated by Julio Jones. He put up 23-264-1 in the last four games that Jones missed, a pace that would put him at nearly 100 catches and well over 1000 yards in a 17-game season. He’s clearly worth a late-round pick now, if not more.
Tennessee Fans - Go ahead and let visions of the Titans going deep in the playoffs again run wild. The Titans are in good shape in 2022 and 2023 cap-wise and you have to love it when your team is committed to winning. Jones might not put them over the top, but if the Titans were one player away, Jones is a good candidate to be that player.
Hayden Hurst, TE, ATL - Hurst became irrelevant for fantasy when Pitts was drafted but now has a chance to get on the field a lot more if the Falcons choose to engage defenses more often in two-tight-end sets, which only makes sense based on the strength of their personnel and new head coach Arthur Smith’s background as a tight end coach. Hurst is still only a waiver wire watch list player in fantasy leagues, but he’ll certainly have a better chance to show his stuff for teams considering him in next year’s free-agent market, which helps his dynasty value.
Olamide Zaccheaus, Frank Darby, WR, ATL - When Jones originally went down last year, it was Zaccheaus, a 2019 UDFA, who took over the starting role, not Gage. Zaccheaus missed time last year when Jones was out in December, and Gage appeared to have passed him on the depth chart, but this is a new regime, so it’s not 100% certain that Gage will be clearly ahead of Zaccheaus this year. Darby -- who the new regime took in the sixth round this year knowing that they were likely to deal Jones -- is a deep threat from Arizona State who might be the best outside receiver on the roster after Ridley if he has a smooth transition to the pros. Both of these guys will have a chance to rise as high on the depth chart as their skills and talent allow.
Mike Davis, RB, ATL - The Falcons offense may become less efficient and have fewer scoring drives without Julio Jones, but that will free up some targets for Davis, and he’ll still outperform his draft position if he stays healthy all year because he has minimal competition for touches. If Kyle Pitts is everything he is advertised to be, the net effect on Davis’s productivity will be small. Davis’s value may be slightly down on this news, but I already had him as undervalued, so the bottom line here is don’t get scared off of Davis at ADP on this news.
A.J. Brown, WR, TEN - The best shark move in the wake of this deal is to buy Brown in redraft. He was skyrocketing in value well into the top five at wide receiver in some drafts because of an expectation of maybe the largest target share in the league. Now there will be an expectation of his target share staying flat or maybe even dropping slightly with Jones added. Brown’s target share will drop, but the quality of his targets will go up enough to make up for the loss. With no other credible threat in the passing game, Brown was going to face double coverage and extra attention until the Titans proved someone like Josh Reynolds or Anthony Firkser could make defenses pay. Now Brown will have a chance to operate with the best running mate he has had in his short career. The Titans were already working on moving Brown around and expanding his route tree in anticipation of him seeing different looks and more coverage from defenses this year.
#Titans OC Todd Downing: AJ Brown will likely some different looks this year, more coverage ... Hope to move him around, expand his route tree a bit.— John Glennon (@glennonsports) June 2, 2021
That’s not necessary now. Remember he was playing hurt last year. Brown is still a solid second-round pick and not a crazy pick in the early second, which is where he was going in a lot of drafts.
Julio Jones, WR, TEN - Jones wasn’t going to land anywhere as good for his fantasy outlook as the Falcons, even with Kyle Pitts in tow. They distributed 396 targets to wide receivers last year with Jones missing almost half of the season. While the new offense created some uncertainty, no team that was realistically in the mix for him would have been able to give him the opportunity the Falcons were going to give him, and from a quarterback that he had played with for his entire career. The Titans only threw to wideouts 270 times last year (106 to Brown), but Corey Davis turned 92 targets into 65-984-5 in 14 games, so if Jones can play 17 games, he’ll have high-value targets and certainly be able to justify his early draft ADP around WR15. Moving Jones down significantly in rankings is an overreaction.
Atlanta Fans - It hurts to see a franchise icon traded to put a tourniquet on wounds left by the previous regime, but there was no other way out for the Falcons. The second-round pick next year should give the new regime another player projected to be a core starter and now they don’t have to push off even more cap pain into the future or pay some of Jones' salary this year to acknowledge how deep the hole was.
Matt Ryan, QB, ATL - Ryan will have Kyle Pitts to fill Jones big shoes in the offensive gameplans, but his status as a possible fantasy QB1 with Jones still on the 2021 roster via some cap magic has evaporated. He’ll still be a good matchup play and if Pitts hits and Smith’s offense clicks, he might be a QB1 anyway, but there’s no reason to reach for him in drafts now.
Josh Reynolds, WR, TEN - Reynolds was set up to inherit Corey Davis’s vacated targets and be a big piece of this pass offense by default. He could still matter in fantasy leagues if Jones can’t stay healthy, but he’s not worth drafting now.
Anthony Firkser, TE, TEN - Firkser, like Reynolds was set up for fantasy relevance, perhaps even to the tune of being a low TE1 on volume like former Falcon Austin Hooper did when he was in Atlanta. Now Jones is there is to hoover up targets and Firkser fades back from primary to complementary target.
New England, Los Angeles Rams, Los Angeles Chargers, Indianapolis, San Francisco, and Baltimore fans - The other teams connected to Jones passed on him, perhaps because of the monetary cost more than the draft capital, but either way, their fans will never know what Jones could have done for their 2021 Super Bowl prospects. Jalen Ramsey expressed something Rams fans probably felt because they have been in win-now mode for years and could have easily afforded the draft capital cost based on their approach to team building.
Imma have myself a good Sunday but this is all it took for a generational guy & we were “out” of the Julio sweepstakes!? Wow ðŸ¤¦ðŸ¾â™‚ï¸ we woulda been unstoppable forreal with all them weapons lol! Julio to the 615 fye tho! https://t.co/MGp8HxbyKl— Jalen Ramsey (@jalenramsey) June 6, 2021
The Colts will have to face Jones twice a year and he could be the difference in the divisional race. Lamar Jackson to Julio Jones would have been fun, Kyle Shanahan knows just how to use Jones to his fullest from their time together in Atlanta, the Chargers would have had mismatches all over the field for Justin Herbert to exploit, and the Patriots would have gotten a true #1 receiver. Any of these teams could have made this deal work if they had the will to pay more than the Titans did.