It only took a few weeks, but Julio Jones and the Falcons got the trade they were looking for. Tennessee was always the most logical landing spot for Julio and they needed to flip merely their 2022 second round pick and 2023 fourth to Atlanta to get it done. The Falcons gave the Titans a 2023 sixth back as a part of the deal.
Almost as importantly, the Titans are taking on the entirety of Julio’s remaining contract — which was the main reason the Falcons were forced to make this move in the first place. GM Terry Fonenot was left in a brutal position with an aging roster filled with bloated contracts from the previous regime. So, Tennessee will pay Julio’s $15 million fully guaranteed salary in 2021 and then likely look to restructure the final few years of his deal in 2022.
The Titans side of the deal is more interesting to examine, so we’ll start there.
Does Julio Still Have It?
Given just how barren the Titans receiver depth was behind A.J. Brown and the low price it took to get Julio, they had no choice but to make this trade. After losing Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith in free agency, Tennessee has a ridiculous 224 vacated targets from the 2020 season. Outside of Brown, Ryan Tannehill’s weapons were looking thin at best.
Julio played just nine games last year, but he was just as explosive and efficient as he’s always been. In 2020, Julio ranked 4th in yards gained per route run after ranking 1st, 1st, 1st, 2nd, and 5th in his previous five seasons. And just like we’ve seen for years, Julio remained effective on deeper targets. Per SIS, Jones was 4th in EPA (expected points added) per target when he saw throws of 15 or more yards downfield. Only Curtis Samuel, Emmanuel Sanders, and Justin Jefferson were better.
Even though he’s now 32, Julio was still playing at an extremely high level while dealing with a nagging hamstring all year that ultimately ended his season. His presence is a positive for the Titans attack not only because it gives Ryan Tannehill an upgrade in replacing Davis, but it should lead to more scoring opportunities for the offense as a whole.
Now, Julio does take some of the steam out of Brown’s high-end range of outcomes as a potential top-3 contender at the position, but it ultimately keeps Brown firmly in the WR1 conversation. Keep in mind, Brown averaged a strong 17.6 PPR points per game in 15 starts (includes playoffs) which would have made him the WR7 right behind Keenan Allen (17.7).
Is Julio better than Corey Davis? Unquestionably. Will he earn more targets than Davis did? That’s extremely likely. But let’s not pretend like adding Julio is a huge knock to Brown’s value. In their 15 games together last year, Brown averaged 7.8 targets per game while Davis was at 6.5.
The Titans are still a run-first team, but beyond adding one of the NFL’s best receivers of all time, there are tangible reasons to believe they are going to throw more in 2021.
First and foremost, HC Mike Vrabel’s defense has major question-marks — particularly in the secondary. Tennessee was gashed for the fourth-most passing yards per game last year and are relying on a few offseason additions to turn things around. Janoris Jenkins will hopefully be an upgrade over Malcolm Butler, but the Titans are banking on Caleb Farley bouncing back quickly from an offseason back surgery and missing all of the 2020 college season.
If the Titans defense continues to regress, it will lead to higher-scoring ball games and ultimately more dropbacks for Tannehill. In fact, when the Titans offense took the field last year, they were behind on the scoreboard on 42% of their snaps which was an even higher rate than the Falcons (40%). A bad defense that can’t stop the pass and gives up points forces the offense to keep their foot on the gas and throw to keep up. All of this adds up to more volume for Tannehill, Brown, and Julio.
Still, the talent that you have on offense drives the plays that you call and Derrick Henry has been the focal point of the Titans offense for the last two and half years. Todd Downing was promoted to replace Arthur Smith, giving Tannehill and the offense continuity and familiarity. While their identity isn’t going to change, having two game-changing wideouts should lead Downing to throw just a little bit more than they did in 2020.
Last year, the Titans ran the ball 49% of the time when the game was within a score (fourth-highest rate), they were 59% run-heavy when leading (second-highest), and leaned on the run on 44% of their plays when trailing (third-highest rate). Make no mistake: we’re still going to see a heavy dose of Henry and the aerial attack will predicate off of play-action, but I’m expecting the defenses' regression and addition of Julio to lead to a slight increase in the Titans passing volume. Over the course of a full season, an extra 2-3 pass attempts per game is meaningful.
We’ve gotten this far and haven’t even talked about Anthony Firkser… and for good reason. I have not understood the Twitter Hive Mind hype around Firkser this offseason largely because Jonnu Smith — who is way better at football than Firkser — was largely irrelevant for fantasy in this offense. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve taken some stabs at Firsker as my TE2 in best ball, but he never had a top-8 or 10 ceiling in his range of outcomes to begin with.
Firkser, just like Mike Gesicki, is really just a big slot receiver. Firkser ran 71% of his routes lined up in the slot last season, leading all tight ends. On the flip side, Geoff Swaim will be elevated to a near full-time role. The Titans played with two tight ends on the field on a league-leading 48% of their offensive snaps last year and I expect that will continue with Brown and Julio out wide, Firkser as the “move” TE and Swaim as the primary blocker. Per PFF, the Titans used Swaim as a run or pass blocker on 77% of his 356 snaps. Meanwhile, Josh Reynolds will be left as the rotational receiver when the Titans go into their 2-TE sets and will likely only play full-time when they are in 3-receiver formations.
Over the last two years, only one quarterback has scored more fantasy points per dropback than Tannehill… and that is Lamar Jackson. The Titans will likely throw 2-3 more times per game because of their declining defense. We’ve moved Tannehill to QB9 in our projections.
Derrick Henry’s outlook remains unchanged. Personally, I can’t be any higher on Henry. He’s been installed as my RB3 behind CMC and Cook in our best ball rankings all offseason.
Bringing in Julio lowers A.J. Brown’s apex ceiling, but he’s still firmly a WR1. Julio might see a career-low in targets per game on a run-first team, but it’s still not enough to knock him out of the WR2 range. Tannehill offers an upgrade on Ryan, too.
Julio’s ADP in BB10s before the trade was 44 overall (mid-fourth round). If he slides into the fifth round, he’ll offer a week-winning WR1 ceiling as your WR3 in best ball. That’s hard to pass up.
Anthony Firkser was being over-drafted to begin with. He should be more affordable now. Josh Reynolds is only worth a stab in best ball stacked with Tannehill.
It’s impossible not to love this trade from the Titans side of things and simultaneously feel awful for Falcons fans. (At least 28-3 feels like it was eight years ago.) Their best player in franchise history — and future Hall of Famer — was just traded for pennies on the dollar and the team has a rough few years ahead of it in this rebuild, especially on the defensive side of the ball. At least moving Julio gets Atlanta out of cap space hell for now.
The biggest loser in this trade overall is obviously Matt Ryan. Last year, Ryan averaged 309.7 yards per game, 7.9 yards per attempt, and 0.18 EPA/dropback with Julio. Without him? Ryan dipped to just 256.3 YPG, an extremely below-par 6.6 YPA, and -0.02 EPA/DB. Brutal.
Losing Julio hurts the Falcons’ offense as a whole, which makes the timing of this trade even worse from a team-building perspective. In theory, if you’re not going to draft the QB of the future or trade back from 4 overall and instead take Kyle Pitts, you’re signalling that you’re going all-in on the back half of Ryan’s prime. Which could have worked! Especially given the state of their defense, Atlanta’s only chance to compete in the NFC South is by scoring as many points as possible. At the end of the day, trading Julio away for a measly second-round pick is in direct contradiction with the rest of their moves this offseason.
Well, at least Calvin Ridley comes away from the Julio ordeal as a bonafide top-5 receiver. Ridley has been unstoppable when Julio has missed time over the last two years, putting up a ridiculous 20.2 FPG in eight games with him off of the field. Check this out:
Ridley’s game log without Julio (2019-20)
|Game||Receiving||Targets||Weekly Finish||PPR Points|
We’ve bumped Ridley up to WR4 in our projections and I view him as a borderline first-round pick in best ball leagues. Ridley has already established that he can be a true alpha No. 1 wideout and a consistently dominant player in fantasy. Without Julio, Ridley is locked into a 25% target share on what will be one of the most pass-heavy team’s in the league. Ridley finishing as the WR1 is well within range now that Julio is gone.
On the flipside, I thought Kyle Pitts was over-priced in early best ball drafts at his fifth/sixth round ADP and am taking the L because that is going to end up being the best price we’ll see. Just buckle in and prepare for the hype to reach earth-shattering proportions now. Pitts is a one-of-one prospect and is in an entirely unfamiliar position as far as a rookie tight end is concerned. Pretty much all tight ends start out slowly, but the Falcons are immediately relying on Pitts to be a Week 1 difference maker.
Here’s the thing, though. All three of these things can be true:
- Pitts is the best TE prospect ever and is already the TE1 in dynasty
- You can project Pitts for the best rookie TE season ever
- He’s still overvalued in season-long leagues
Pitts is now all but guaranteed to leapfrog both Mark Andrews and T.J. Hockenson as the TE4 in drafts behind Travis Kelce, Darren Waller, and George Kittle. Over the next few weeks, I expect Pitts to end up with a fourth-round ADP.
For Pitts to pay off that cost, he’ll have to average 13.3 PPR points per game — which is what the TE4 in FPG has put up over the last five years. How likely is it that Pitts puts up at least 13.2 FPG?
Well, only one tight end in NFL history has scored more than 13.3 FPG as a rookie and that was Mike Ditka back in 1961 when he put up 56/1072/12 in 14 games (16.6 FPG). Since the beginning of 2000, Jordan Reed (12.7), Evan Engram (11.6), Jeremy Shockey (11.4), Aaron Hernandez (10.1), and Rob Gronkowski (9.7) have all come relatively close to that TE4 average of 13.3 FPG, but none have exceeded it.
Is Pitts a better prospect and is he in a better situation to produce than any rookie TE history? Absolutely. That is not in question. What is in question is Pitts’ pathway to beating his season-long ADP and returning value.
For the premium you’ll have to pay for Pitts, he’ll have to end up with somewhere around 70 catches, 850 yards and 8 touchdowns. There have only been 49 individual seasons in NFL history in which a tight end has gone over 850 yards and scored 8 times and Tony Gonzalez, Travis Kelce, Antonio Gates, or Rob Gronkowski account for 21 of them. Is Pitts already at that level?
Given HC Arthur Smith’s history and their personnel, I expect the Falcons to morph into predominantly a two tight end offense now with Pitts lining up all over the place and Hayden Hurst on the line of scrimmage. Moving Julio bumps Russell Gage into an every-down role and in the WR4/5 range for our game. Of course the caveat is that they didn’t have Pitts, but Gage averaged 11.7 fantasy points on 6.9 targets per game when Julio was out in 2019-20.
Matt Ryan’s average fantasy points per game fell by 15% when Julio was out over the last two years. He drops from the back-end of the QB1’s to a middle of the pack QB2.
Calvin Ridley is one of the best picks on the board right now. I’d take him as early as the 11-15 overall range as a part of a RB/WR or WR/WR start.
You’ll have to take Kyle Pitts in the fourth round now if you want him. Do you have the stomach to take him over the likes of Robert Woods, CeeDee Lamb, D.J. Moore, Adam Thielen, Tyler Lockett or an anchor QB1 (Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, Kyler Murray)? Is Pitts worth the 45th pick while Mark Andrews and TJ Hockenson are going off of the board in the 60-65 overall range? Because that’s what it will cost.
Mike Davis remains the only RB I really want in the 4th-6th round range, but losing Julio knocks the offense as a whole. Davis’ volume remains very safe, though. People were taking Todd Gurley in the third round last year even though he was clearly toast. Davis is a better player at this stage.
Russell Gage gets a bump into the 10th-12th round range.