Atlanta Falcons Takeaways From Last Week – July 20, 2015

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY SportsJulio Jones

ESPN’s Vaughn McClure reported early last week that the Atlanta Falcons and wide receiver Julio Jones had yet to begin contract negotiations which came as a mild surprise considering that the team indicated following the draft that getting Jones signed to a contract extension was their biggest priority.

However in reality, McClure’s report really only meant that contract negotiations had yet to begin, not that they weren’t going to try and get something done. The Falcons have made it a habit of giving out their biggest contract extensions on the eve of training camp, both signing wide out Roddy White and quarterback Matt Ryan the past two summers within 24 hours of their first practice.

It’s very likely that Jones will follow suit, signing a deal before the team kicks off camp this summer on July 31 as McClure later indicated. The fact that the team hadn’t really started negotiating yet shouldn’t be too surprising since former Green Bay Packers cap analyst Andrew Brandt always notes: “deadlines spur action.”

The Falcons really didn’t need to start negotiating a new deal with Jones until after July 15, when a pair of franchise-tagged wide receivers: Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas, signed their deals. The Dallas Cowboys and Denver Broncos had to sign both players by that deadline in order to free up their ability to use their franchise tags again in 2016. Now that both players signed eerily similar five-year contracts worth $70 million, the Falcons now have firmer parameters at where the negotiations can begin and end with Jones.

Last month I tried to project Jones’ contract, basing it primarily on the deal signed by Detroit Lions wideout Calvin Johnson back in 2012, a deal that made him the highest-paid wide receiver in the NFL. With Bryant and Thomas signing new deals, the “floor” for where Jones’ contract has likely been set.

Jones Should See More Money Than Bryant and Thomas

It’s very likely that the Falcons will pay Jones more than what either Bryant or Thomas made. That’s largely because neither Bryant nor Thomas have potentially as strong a negotiating stance as Jones and his agent, Jimmy Sexton, likely have with the Falcons.

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Julio Jones

The biggest feather in Sexton’s hat is the fact that had Jones not missed the team’s Week 15 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers last year, he would have likely led the NFL in receiving yards last season. Jones finished the year with 1,593 yards, just 105 shy of Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown. Jones averaged 106 receiving yards per game, indicating just an average performance in Week 15 would have netted him the title. Considering the Steelers allowed 131 yards to Harry Douglas, it’s likely that Jones could have potentially eclipsed 150 had he been healthy enough to play that game.

If Bryant and Thomas’ deal represent the floor of Jones’ negotiation stance, then it’s likely that Johnson’s deal represents the ceiling. Despite arguments made otherwise in June by myself, it’s going to be a lot harder for Jones’ new deal to eclipse that of Johnson’s considering that Bryant and Thomas’ don’t. They represent his peer group, as Jones, Bryant and Thomas all are between the ages of 26 and 27.

So what is this spectrum where Jones’ contract could lie? As mentioned earlier, Thomas and Bryant both signed five-year deals worth $70 million. Johnson signed a seven-year contract worth $113.5 million, but his five-year payout was $78.2 million according to Over the Cap. Jones’ deal almost certainly will fall somewhere with that $8.2 million-range.

I noted before that Johnson received a three-year payout of $51.75 million, which could have been something that Jones’ new deal might try to beat. It’s less likely that will be the case since Bryant and Thomas’ three-year payouts came in a bit lower. Bryant will receive $45 million over the first three years of his contract, while Thomas will receive at least $43.5 million with the possibility of $4 million more if the Broncos exercise an option bonus during the calendar year of 2017. That likely means that Jones’ contract will seek to reach $48 million in terms of three-year payouts as opposed to $52 million.

For both Bryant and Thomas, most of those three-year payouts are guaranteed. Bryant received an initial guarantee of $32 million at signing, but that likely is going to increase as the Cowboys have to decide within the first week of the 2016 league year whether they want to guarantee his $13 million 2017 base salary, pushing that initial guarantee up to a extremely-likely-to-be-paid $45 million.

Thomas on the other hand received initial guarantee of $35 million, with his 2017 base salary of $8.5 million becoming fully guaranteed for skill and injury in the first week of 2016’s league year. Again like Bryant, it’s very likely that Thomas will get the full extent of his $43.5 million in guaranteed money unless something catastrophic happens in the next seven months.

What’ll be interesting is how the Falcons might structure the deal. The Falcons have typically opted to have tiered bonuses in their big-money deals, meaning that bonus money is usually tied to an initial signing bonus followed by a second-year option bonus.

Bryant’s deal includes $20 million in signing bonus all up front. Thomas only got an $11 million bonus at signing, but is due a $6.5 million roster bonus today, giving him an initial payout of $17.5 million.

Ryan’s deal back in 2013 included an initial signing bonus of $28 million followed by an option bonus of $14 million in the second year. Ideally, the Falcons would want to spread out that second payout to Jones over another year, thus lowering his cap hit. There is incentive for the Falcons to try and lock up Jones to a six-year deal instead of a five-year one. But Sexton may balk at this, hoping that his client will hit free agency at the same time that Bryant and Thomas do, so that he’ll once again have leverage at the negotiating table.

As these things go, there is an obvious give and take with negotiations. The Falcons could try to compel Sexton to accept a six-year deal, but likely in order to get that from him they’d have to give him a larger initial payout. That could mean a deal that rests much closer on the contract spectrum to Johnson than it does Bryant or Thomas. The question the Falcons would then have to ask is having that sixth year that important if it means committing a few extra million up front?

But despite a slow beginning, it’s likely that negotiations will begin to pick up over the next 10 days between the Falcons and Jones. Getting a deal done now behooves the Falcons, as waiting only leaves questions.

Trufant Expected to be Next High-Priced Falcon Contract

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Desmond Trufant

As I noted back in June, Jones is the first of what will likely be several homegrown Falcons players that will get large extensions over the next few years with the next most likely player being cornerback Desmond Trufant. If Jones sets a new precedent for the Falcons to renegotiate their first-round picks the summer after their fourth seasons, then Trufant is likely to land an extension in the summer of 2017.

The highest-paid corners in the NFL: Darrelle Revis, Richard Sherman and Patrick Peterson all have contracts that average around $14 million. Joe Haden is next on the list at $13.5 million per year. Unfortunately for Trufant, there isn’t likely to be another cornerback that comes along between now and 2017 that is likely to going to set a new higher benchmark.

Eventually Trufant is likely to be joined by fellow 2013 first-round cornerback in Minnesota Vikings’ Xavier Rhodes as the corners likely to get large extensions two years from now. Both are players that could potentially add their names to the short list of elite corners based off their emergent play in 2014. Given their current level of play, neither Trufant nor Rhodes could potentially demand Revis-level money. But with two more good seasons, Trufant and Rhodes’ agents of Doug Hendrickson and Sunny Shah, respectively, will have a stronger negotiating stance. Rhodes played as well as any corner in the second half of 2014 and as was the case with Bryant and Thomas for Jones, the Vikings cornerback could serve as a benchmark for Trufant’s future negotiations.

After Trufant, offensive tackle Jake Matthews and defensive end Vic Beasley will be the next likely to get long-term extensions. While some might think Matthews getting a long-term deal is premature, I’m very confident that Matthews’ play will improve over the next three years before he’s due in 2018. As I noted in May, outside a four-game stint in the middle of 2014 where he was suffering from a severe ankle injury, Matthews graded in the middle of the pack among offensive tackles. He’s only likely to improve from that point as young left tackles are wont to do. Duane Brown, Trent Williams, Eugene Monroe and Joe Staley all had notable struggles early in their NFL careers but were able to quickly turn it around to become some of the best left tackles in the league. There’s absolutely no reason to think Matthews’ won’t follow suit considering his bloodlines and flashes of ability he showed as a rookie.

Expectations are of course high for Beasley in Atlanta and considering the monster $101 million contract that Justin Houston signed last week, one can also expect that if Beasley lives up to them, he could be due a fairly fat check come the summer of 2019.

Unlike cornerback, there are substantial number of notable free agents at offensive tackle and defensive end between now and the summers of 2018 and 2019 when Matthews and Beasley are expected to get paid, respectively. These players could set new price points for what top players at their respective positions get paid. For offensive tackle, Washington’s Trent Williams is probably the most notable of the group, as he is set to become a free agent next spring. Von Miller, Ziggy Ansah, Ryan Kerrigan, Khalil Mack and Jadaveon Clowney are all edge-rushers that are likely to get their second contracts between now and 2019, most of whom have the potential to join the elite group of defenders making over $100 million like Houston.

Falcons Will Give Out Big Money to Core Players

What it translates to is the possibility of the Falcons having a core group of young players that are among the highest-paid players at their respective positions. Quarterback, offensive tackle, edge-rusher and cornerback are the four “pillar” or premium positions within the NFL, with many considering wide receiver to form the fifth position. Is it a coincidence that by 2019, the Falcons may have a player considered among the top five or 10 players at each of those positions and paid accordingly?

The Falcons have the potential for a strong core and foundation of players to build around for the long-term future. Of these five players, Ryan is the eldest having turned 30 in May. But since he’s a quarterback, there’s reason to believe that he could continue to play at a high level for another seven to eight years, meaning that all five of these players could still remain the foundation of the Falcons for the better part of the next decade.

The key for Dan Quinn’s Falcons is to do the opposite of what general managers Thomas Dimitroff and Rich McKay did before him, which is to get off track by chasing a Super Bowl after three years. And as I noted back in December, that may have less to do with the men making the football decisions and more to do with the guy that paying all this money: team owner Arthur Blank.

The pressure to win and win big in the NFL is very high so it’s understandable that there may have been “environmental factors” within Flowery Branch that might have prompted both team’s GMs to abandon their usual “draft-first” building strategy midstream. However under Quinn, the Falcons can’t fall into that same trap.

Dimitroff should only know from his experience in New England that there are no shortcuts to winning. Continually building over time is the best path to success because it increases a team’s odds. Instead of trying to condense things into a three or four-year window, NFL teams need to try to expand their window over the course of a decade and that involves adamantly focusing on building via the draft.

I’ve continually noted that free agency rarely nets long-term building success. Building via the draft may take longer but it also means that the return on those investments are spread out over a longer period time than the typical two to three-year window of free agency. Ryan has already given the Falcons the best seven years of any quarterback in team history and potentially could give them seven more. Jones has already given the Falcons four good years and could easily add twice as many more.

There’s reason to be optimistic that Trufant can play at a high level until he’s 32, suggesting another seven years of high-caliber play. A good left tackle like Matthews could play until he’s 32 or older, indicating the Falcons’ young left tackle might play another nine years with the team at a high level. An edge-rusher like John Abraham played at a high level until he was 35 years old, meaning that Vic Beasley could have a dozen more good years in him.

Falcons Supplementing Core Tied to Good Drafting

While these five players might all form the core of the team for the next seven or more seasons, it’ll be important for the Falcons to supplement them heavily in the draft. Given that this core is likely to take up substantial amounts of cap space in the coming years, the Falcons won’t be as readily able to spend as freely in free agency for other teams’ free agents to fix glaring holes. Thus their ability to build and build well will be tied to whether they can continually find and replenish talent in the draft.

If the Falcons do it right, then their future might work similarly to that of the Baltimore Ravens. Under GM Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens consistently let go of their non-first-round picks due to other teams valuing them higher than the Ravens. Largely because those players don’t become core pieces of the Ravens teams. This often turns into players like Paul Kruger, Ovie Mughelli, Torrey Smith, and Pernell McPhee signing lucrative contracts with other teams, which in turn nets the Ravens back compensatory draft picks.

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Trufant (left) and Robert Alford might not be a long-term pair

The case of the Falcons cornerback position potentially illustrates this well. With Trufant likely to be paid a large contract in the summer of 2017, it likely means that Robert Alford will be left out in the cold at the negotiating table a few months earlier when he hits free agency. The Falcons aren’t likely to pay market value to two cornerbacks, rather settling for just one. Between the two, Trufant is definitely the likelier of the two at this point. Also hurting Alford is the newfound presence of Jalen Collins, who by the time Alford is set to be a free agent will be entering his third season with the Falcons and likely poised to take over the starting position (if not sooner). Should Alford leave in 2017 and nets a large enough contract, the Falcons could receive a third or fourth-round compensatory pick in the 2018 draft that could potentially help replace him.

Collins’ contract expires after 2018 and it’s possible that he’ll play at a high enough level between now and then that the Falcons might make an exception and sign a second cornerback besides Trufant to a lucrative contract. But it’s just as possible the team may decide to replace him just as they did Alford with a high pick they take in 2017 or 2018.

In order to facilitate that, the team must draft well and get quality players and starters with their second, third, fourth and occasionally fifth-round picks. That is something that the team did not do well under Dimitroff and that will have to change now that Quinn is heading the team, if the Falcons want to have sustainable long-term success.

The Packers are another example of a team that has been successful by focusing on the draft. GM Ted Thompson took over the team in 2005, yet the Packers remain a strong Super Bowl contender a decade later because of his ability to consistently add quality draft picks.

The Packers have made it to the NFC Championship game three times over the past decade with Thompson calling the shots and also sported the league’s best regular-season record in 2011. That means there were basically four times over the past 10 years that the Packers had a legitimate chance of winning a Super Bowl. They managed to take advantage of one of those opportunities back in 2010.

The Falcons on the other hand have made one NFC Championship appearance over the past decade thanks to less-than-stellar drafting. Even if you were to add in the team’s 2010 season where the Packers beat the No. 1-seeded Falcons in the playoffs as another legit chance of winning a Super Bowl, that’s two chances.

It’s simple probability, there’s a much higher chance of hitting once if given four opportunities than there are if given one or two. The Packers potentially have a fifth opportunity this year and may have a sixth and seventh opportunity in the future, thanks largely to their ability to draft well. They’ve been able to find not only star players like Clay Matthews and Aaron Rodgers in the first round of the draft over the years, but also been able to hit on second and third-day selections like Eddie Lacy, Mike Daniels, T.J. Lang and Morgan Burnett in recent drafts.

The Falcons’ 2015 draft class certainly gives optimism that they can potentially follow suit and continue to find quality players deeper into the draft thanks to selections like Tevin Coleman, Justin Hardy and Grady Jarrett in the third through fifth rounds. Assuming they succeed, the Falcons need more picks like Ra’Shede Hageman and Devonta Freeman in the future. Even if several of those players follow down the path that Alford is likely to forge and not get a second contract, the Falcons’ ability to continually find those types of talents and producers outside the first round of the draft will be critical to their long-term success.

In recent years the team has simply missed the mark with selections like Peter Konz, Lamar Holmes, Akeem Dent and Prince Shembo with those valuable picks, not to mention the frequent trades that lost them picks in that same range.

The past 17 years has been a relative “golden age” for being a Falcon fan. Since 1998, the Falcons have had more winning seasons (eight) in that span as they had in the previous 33 years (seven) of the team’s existence. That 17-year appearance includes one Super Bowl appearance and two trips to the NFC Championship. But should the Falcons continue to find success with the draft-first approach and adhere to it for multiple years, there’s reason to believe that the team can do more in the next decade than they’ve done for the previous 17.

About the Author

Aaron Freeman
Founder of FalcFans.com