Tuesday's NFL: Falcons coach tight-lipped about Julio Jones' future
Atlanta — The Atlanta Falcons began their offseason training program Tuesday without longtime star receiver Julio Jones, who apparently has no intention of returning to a rebuilding team that is still struggling to get under the salary cap.
Rookie coach Arthur Smith was tight-lipped about the Falcons’ options, but insisted that he doesn’t begrudge Jones for speaking his mind.
“We encourage our players to speak for themselves,” Smith said during an interview session dominated by questions about Jones’ future. “That doesn’t change anything for us. We understand our plan going forward. We’ve had multiple private conversations with our players. Those conversations will remain private on my end.”
After plenty of questions about the seven-time Pro Bowler who, along with Matt Ryan, has been the face of the franchise for the past decade, Jones brought the situation to a head in a brief interview Monday with former NFL star Shannon Sharpe.
“I’m outta there,” Jones told the host of the “Undisputed” on FS1. When asked where he wants to play, the 32-year-old replied, “Right now, I wanna win.”
That seems unlikely with the Falcons, who are coming off their third straight losing season. Atlanta fired coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff after an 0-5 start to a year that ended at 4-12.
Smith and new general manager Terry Fontenot have made it clear that all options are on the table as they attempt to rebuild the roster and deal with several salary cap limitations, which could be eased greatly by trading Jones.
After months of silence from both sides, Jones appears to be pushing for a resolution. In addition to his interview with Sharpe, a photo surfaced on social media of the receiver posing with the fan while wearing a Dallas Cowboys sweatshirt.
Asked about Jones’ choice of attire, Smith called it “irrelevant.”
“You can wear whatever you want,” the coach said. “I don’t care.”
While the Cowboys would not seem to be in the market for another top receiver, there are teams that would surely benefit from having a dynamic player who had six straight seasons with more than 1,300 yards receiving until he was limited to nine games in 2020 by injuries.
Among the teams that might interested in Jones: the San Francisco 49ers, coached by former Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan; the New England Patriots, who have already made a big splash in free agency; and the Jacksonville Jaguars, buoyed by a new franchise quarterback (Trevor Lawrence) and more cap space than any team in the league.
Jones’ status has certainly become a hot topic around the league, with Arizona receiver DeAndre Hopkins even sending a tweet — since deleted — implying he’d to restructure his contract if that’s what it took for Cardinals to deal for Jones.
Hopkins was at it again on Monday, posting a picture on Instagram of himself with Jones, receiver A.J. Green and former NFL star Michael Irvin at the 2016 Pro Bowl. He included the message, “Julio u remember what we talked about.”
Smith repeatedly refused to discuss any aspects of the Jones drama, from reports that the receiver privately requested a trade before the NFL Draft to whether there’s any chance of a reconciliation with one of the team’s most popular players. The coach did say that every player on the roster has received a playbook and all information related to the voluntary OTAs (organized team activities).
“We’ve got so much respect and appreciation for what Julio Jones has done here with this franchise and what he’s meant to this city,” Smith said “But we have conversations about our roster all the time. We have to have contingency plans.”
Jones’ $15.3 million base salary is guaranteed and he’s set to cost the Falcons slightly more than $23 million against the salary cap next season. If he’s traded after June 1, they would be able to split the dead money over two seasons, which would greatly ease their grim financial situation.
As it stands, the Falcons still must clear several million dollars just to sign a draft class led by the No. 4 overall pick, tight end Kyle Pitts.
While trading Jones makes sense financially, especially given the emergence of receivers Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage, the situation has cast a pall over a franchise that has never seemed to recover from blowing a 28-3 lead in the 2017 Super Bowl.
Ryan made it clear last week how much Jones has meant to the team’s success.
“I love Julio. I’ve been so lucky to play with him for the past decade,” Ryan said. “He’s an incredible competitor and one of the best to ever do it at his position.”
Packers unfazed by Rodgers situation
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ teammates say the MVP’s uncertain status won’t distract them in their offseason preparations.
Rodgers hasn’t been present for organized team activities this week following an ESPN report last month that he doesn’t want to return to Green Bay. Rodgers was noncommittal about his future in an ESPN interview Monday night.
“I don’t think it’s going to be that much of a distraction,” defensive tackle Kenny Clark said Tuesday. “We’ve got to control what we can control as a team, and we’ve just to come out, practice, handle business and play ball. You know, we’ve got to leave that situation to the organization and Aaron.”
Although Rodgers wasn’t around, he still dominated discussions as Packers players spoke to reporters Tuesday. Many of the questions focused on the issues Rodgers addressed in the interview that ESPN aired Monday night.
Safety Adrian Amos was cautiously optimistic that Rodgers will remain with the Packers.
“I haven’t heard him say anything other than that, so I expect him to be (back),” Amos said. “But like I said, I’m not going to go home and cry if something else happens. I’m just playing it day by day. But of course, you want one of the greatest, if not the greatest, quarterback ever on your team. You want him out here. But everybody has to go about their business. I’m not going to knock anybody for getting what they feel like they deserve.”
Burrow will be ready
Quarterback Joe Burrow said he expects to play in the Bengals’ season opener on Sept. 12.
Burrow, who had surgery on his injured left knee in December, said he’s brought it back to 80-85%.
“Still got to be patient,” Burrow said afterward. “Can’t push too hard. At this point it’s still how it feels, there are still good days and bad days. It’s still sore some days and so you will take it a little easy, and some days it feels really good and you’ll push it really hard. But we have a good (rehab) plan.”
Coach Zac Taylor acknowledged being “overly cautious” in not allowing anyone within 10 feet of Burrow to avoid any accidental collisions.
“It’s the first time I’ve gotten to see him to do that kind of stuff, so it was exciting for me,” Taylor said. “It’s good for the spirit of the team to see him back out there. We haven’t seen him practice in a long time, so that was a good sign for today.”
The 2019 Heisman Trophy winner and last year’s top overall draft pick said his next benchmark is expected to come in training camp when he is cleared for contact.