Is the Julio Jones era coming to a close in Atlanta?
With the Falcons out of contention and seemingly looking at a rebuild, pricey veterans such as Jones and even franchise quarterback Matt Ryan are sensible candidates to continue their careers elsewhere.
The Nov. 3 trade deadline is looming, and the Falcons have already moved on from former head coach Dan Quinn, prompting speculation that perhaps Atlanta will look to unload one or both of arguably the best passer and receiver the team has ever known.
But deadline deals involving high-paid impact players are relatively scarce in the annals of NFL history for several reasons. Mostly it comes down to salary cap considerations.
While a Jones trade is a long shot, it's not impossible. The Falcons would absorb a fairly substantial financial blow in dead-cap money in any such deal, minimizing some of the long-term savings they'd gain by unloading Jones. That means their asking price for a return would likely have to be that much higher to make it worth their while.
That being said, it only takes one motivated suitor to shake things up.
Jones is a bona fide superstar when healthy, a prototype No. 1 receiver with the track record to prove it. Even in an Atlanta offense on a downward trajectory the past few years, Jones notched 113 catches in 2018 and 99 last season (in 15 games). He racked up over 3,000 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns combined in those two years, while averaging better than 14 yards per catch.
Guys like that don't grow on trees.
Here are a few contenders who could use the services of Jones, and appear to have sufficient cap space to make it work.
The Eagles have been decimated by injuries, especially on offense. Their hodge-podge receiving corps has been no different, leaving QB Carson Wentz with a dearth of dependable targets despite admirable contributions from unheralded fill-ins like Travis Fulgham.
Jones would step in as the Eagles' top receiver and provide Wentz with a security blanket that he's been sorely missing while playing under duress behind a leaky offensive line. Philly was even linked to Jones in spring trade rumors, though the whispers were later dashed and nothing materialized.
New England Patriots
It's hard to grade the Patriots' offense after only five games, one of which didn't even feature Cam Newton. The former NFL MVP has looked the part at times in New England, but it's clear he needs another dynamic playmaker or two around him.
The Patriots' running game is well accounted for between Newton and a stable of productive backs, but the receiving corps could use an infusion of talent. Early breakout signs from N'Keal Harry proved fleeting, while Julian Edelman remains productive in any role. Edelman's natural fit, though, is as a slot man, and it's fair to wonder whether he can handle the workload of a prototype No. 1.
Jones was on the wrong end of the Pats' infamous Super Bowl comeback. Maybe he needs to join 'em and give up trying to beat 'em.
Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers has rediscovered his old form with a fury so far in 2020 -- doing it mostly without the benefit of any standout playmakers in the passing game aside from Davante Adams.
It feels like fans and observers have been saying it forever, but seriously what's with the lack of dynamism around Rodgers? He's making some relatively unheralded guys look really good -- imagine what he could do with Adams and a second stud receiver the likes of Jones.
Green Bay's problem so far in the season has been its defense, not its offense, so team brass may be disinclined to pursue another weapon for Matt LaFleur and Rodgers. But the defensive unit may need more help than can be had at the trade deadline; maybe the Packers decide they're going to mount their run simply by outscoring everyone.
Like the Packers and Rodgers, the Browns might have to decide that the best antidote to their dreadful defense is more offense. Cleveland surrendered 187 points through its first six games, third-worst in the NFL behind only the Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings.
The Browns are a run-first team and their offensive talent is spread around pretty evenly, so it's hard to figure how much Jones would improve a receiving corps already boasting Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry.
But run-first teams that surrender over 30 points per game often find themselves needing to pass -- and who better to aid Baker Mayfield in that endeavor than Jones? The Browns are said to lead the league in available cap room.
The Titans on paper have all the pass-catching targets they need -- the question is whether those players are healthy and ready to contribute down the stretch.
Former No. 5 overall draft pick Corey Davis has been out since Week 3 after apparently contracting coronavirus during the team's outbreak. Speedster A.J. Brown missed time with a bone bruise he suffered on opening day.
Tennessee has kept rolling along, stuffing the ball in Derrick Henry's gut and getting creative in finding opportunities for playmakers such as tight end Jonnu Smith. With Davis and Brown seemingly healthy, you'd think the Titans would pass on any bold moves -- but the road to the AFC title runs through the Chiefs' high-octane offense, a lesson Tennessee learned the hard way in last year's playoffs.
The Colts have the opposite problem of the Packers and Browns -- all defense with a mediocre offense. Philip Rivers has not yet found the fountain of youth in Indy as some hoped, fueling rumors of a potential QB shakeup, a scenario shot down by coach Frank Reich.
How about adding Jones? Second-year slot man Parris Campbell is out for the season, and promising but unproven Michael Pittman Jr. was targeting a midseason return after undergoing surgery in Week 3. Meanwhile old friend TY Hilton had yet to click with Rivers, leaving rookie back Jonathan Taylor and third-year man Nyheim Hines to cover a big load behind an excellent offensive line.
The Ravens might be one of the best fits for Jones in terms of their roster fit and team trajectory, but their tight cap situation makes it hard to see how Jones could make the jump from Atlanta to Baltimore.
Still, Lamar Jackson's mojo has seemed to come and go in fits and starts this year. Running the ball is always going to be a big part of his game, and his receivers tend to be speedy downfield threats. But giving him a "safety blanket" the caliber of Jones can only help his development. It could also make the Ravens virtually unstoppable -- if they can figure out how to make the financials work.