© Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports
Julio Jones and the Atlanta Falcons aren’t seeing see eye to eye. The five-time Pro Bowl receiver reportedly wants a newly structured contract, which currently binds him with the Falcons through 2020. And until he gets one, he appears intent on holding out of training camp. The Falcons aren’t budging, yet.
The length of these holdouts and stalemates is impossible to predict. But the longer it lingers, and the more Jones’ disgruntlement grows, the thought of landing one of the premier receivers in recent history, and re-establishing an incredibly successful partnership with head coach Kyle Shanahan, will linger in the minds of Niners fans.
If the possibility arises, the 49ers should pursue Jones. If Shanahan’s recent comments are any indication, they will.
“If there is a Julio available and you have the opportunity to get him, go get him. It’s worth it,” Shanahan told reporters during March’s annual NFL owners meetings. “Whatever that price is, whatever that draft pick is, go get him. There’s not too many Julios on this planet.”
Shanahan’s answer came in response to a question asking whether a featured receiver is necessary in a productive offense.
“If you ever have it, then keep it,” Shanahan said. “It’s very fun to have and it’ll help you a ton, but that’s not something you need.”
Shanahan proved in the final five weeks of the 2017 season he could win with a newly acquired quarterback, with minimal knowledge of the offense, throwing to receivers mostly in their first seasons with the 49ers. They don’t need Jones to succeed, but he could be the piece to push them over the top.
The fit is there. Two of Jones’ best three seasons came during Shanahan’s two-year stint as offensive coordinator with the Falcons in 2015 and 2016. In both years, Jones led the NFL in yards per game. He led the league with 136 receptions and 1,871 receiving yards — the second-most ever in a single season — in 2015. In 2016, Jones posted 1,409 yards in just 14 games.
Combining one of the game’s most innovative offensive thinkers with one of the greatest receivers of this generation worked like a charm — and it would work again.
The 49ers receiving corps is strategically comprised of specialists. You have speedsters (Marquise Goodwin and Dante Pettis), possession receivers (Pierre Garcon and Kendrick Bourne), and third-down targets (Trent Taylor), but you don’t have someone who does it all like Jones. He’s a centaur in the open field and a big-bodied red zone target with amazing sideline awareness. Importantly, he does not devalue the Pettis second-round pick. His speed will be used liberally and creatively. Jones can coexist with the current 49ers receiving corps.
And when a play breaks down, and routes go haywire, the 49ers do not have someone to throw the ball up to and trust he comes down with it. That’s important. Many of the most famous catches in NFL history, and one in particular with this organization, qualify under that umbrella.
There is optimism surrounding the current 49ers receiving corps, but there are still some question marks.
How dynamic is Garcon, who turns 32 in August and missed the final half of 2017? Can Goodwin parlay a career-best 2017 season into 2018? Can Taylor build on a solid rookie year? How seamlessly will Pettis adjust to the pro game in his rookie season?
None of these questions apply to Jones, who has eclipsed 1,400 yards in each of the past four seasons.
Acquiring him seems plausible. The 49ers have the third-most cap space in the NFL with $42.3 million. Jones signed a five-year, $71.25 million contract extension, including $47 million guaranteed, with the Falcons prior to the 2015 season. But his $14.25 million average is fewer than eight other receivers, which is likely the reason for his dissatisfaction. Brandin Cooks, a receiver of much lesser quality, recently signed a five-year $80 million deal with the Los Angeles Rams.
Jones wants to be paid like the top-two NFL receiver he is. The 49ers are one of the few teams who could afford him. Their future salary cap situation is contingent on how several players perform, however. Jimmie Ward, San Francisco’s highest-paid defensive player this season, enters the final year of his contract. Jerick McKinnon, Weston Richburg, and Richard Sherman signed contracts that are either back-heavy or laden with performance-based incentives. You can almost guarantee DeForest Buckner will ink a massive contract that could come as early as next offseason. San Francisco’s future financial situation is not perfectly clear, but it seems acquiring Jones is doable.
Adding him would help combat the Los Angeles Rams’ monster of an offseason. They acquired All-Pro cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters. They are San Francisco’s staunchest NFC West competition and the biggest roadblock toward getting home-field playoff advantage.
Of course, the most pertinent detail lies in whether the Falcons are willing to deal him. While it would free up cap space — the Falcons have the fifth-fewest with $5.2 million— then trading Jones implies a rebuild is on the way. The odds of contending in a loaded NFC South decreases considerably without their best player.
It seemed the 49ers’ offseason spending was concluded. Those plans could change if the possibility of acquiring Jones arises.