What the Falcons’ decision on Calvin Ridley means for Julio Jones trade
Last season, Calvin Ridley caught 90 passes for 1,374 yards and nine touchdowns for the Falcons. Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no surprise that the Atlanta Falcons have officially opted to pick up the 2022 option on wide receiver Calvin Ridley’s contract. The former first-round pick has morphed into one of the better young receivers in the game. Last season alone, Ridley, 26, caught 90 passes for 1,374 yards and nine touchdowns.

However, this decision also comes with some short- and long-term ramifications. By picking up Ridley’s option, the Falcons are guaranteeing him $11.12 million for the 2022 season. That’s a mighty high price to pay. And short of the two sides coming to terms on a much more lucrative long-term contract, it’s a potentially franchise-altering cap hit.

The backdrop here is the status of seven-time Falcons Pro Bowl wide receiver Julio Jones. Recent reports suggest that Atlanta could very well look to trade the future Hall of Famer after June 1.

That timeline is made possible by the fact that the Falcons’ cap hit relating to Jones would be less burdensome over the short term. By virtue of picking up Ridley’s option, things could change in this regard. Let’s explore below.

Jones and the Falcons' cap health

We have absolutely no idea how the 2022 NFL salary cap is going to look after this year’s iteration was lowered significantly due to the revenue downtick created by COVID-19. What we do know is that it will be much higher once next March comes calling.

For now, estimates have the 2022 cap at or above $200 million. Even if it is a bit higher than that, the Falcons are looking at paying out a huge chunk to just three players.

  • Matt Ryan: $40.53 million
  • Julio Jones: $19.26 million
  • Calvin Ridley: $11.12 million

That’s nearly $71 million (35% of the estimated cap) likely to be doled out to three players. Considering that new Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot pushed back against selecting a quarterback in any of the seven rounds of the 2021 NFL Draft, it’s reasonable to believe Matt Ryan will be on the team beyond the 2021 campaign.

For a team that gave up nearly 26 points per game and avoided defense in the aforementioned draft until the second round, that’s a pretty awkward cap split.

Finances of the Falcons trading Jones and why it could happen after June 1

Most figured that if Atlanta were to pull off a trade of Jones, it would have happened during last week’s NFL Draft. Not so fast. There’s a major financial component to all of this.

Trading Jones would have created a $23.25 million cap hit with a savings of just $200,000. By waiting until after June 1, Atlanta would be able to spread said dead cap hit throughout the remainder of Jones’ contract — saving $15.3 million against that cap in the process.

Sure there was some talk about a handshake deal with an inquiring team that would have made a potential trade official after June 1 with Atlanta receiving certain player(s) from the 2021 NFL Draft. However, that type of deal is pretty much left up to the NBA. It has not been a common theme around the gridiron world.

Impact of Kyle Pitts on Jones’ future

This is another major backdrop. Atlanta made this former Florida standout the highest-drafted tight end in NFL history when it selected Pitts No. 4 overall last week. Pitts is seen as a generational talent and is already viewed as a potential future Hall of Famer. That’s not hyperbole.

The aforementioned Ridley and Pitts are seen as the future of Atlanta’s offense with Ryan still in play under center. This is obviously going to have an impact on what the Falcons do with Jones and whether Atlanta trades him after 10 Hall of Fame worthy seasons

Potential Jones trade scenarios

  • New England Patriots: Even after adding two veteran receivers to the mix in free agency, the Patriots are thin at this position. This is magnified by the fact that Bill Belichick and Co. waited until Round 7 of the 2021 NFL Draft to add a receiver. Perhaps, New England puts in a call to the Falcons for Jones — offering up former first-round pick N’Keal Harry and a future early-round selection.
  • San Francisco 49ers: This one just makes too much sense. Mere days after using the No. 3 pick on quarterback Trey Lance, wide receiver has become a talking point in Northern California. For the first time in 18 years, San Francisco did not draft a player at this position. We also already know about Jones’ past relationship with Kyle Shanahan dating back to their days together in Atlanta. San Francisco could go all in for Jones to pair with Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk — offering up next year’s second-round pick and change in the process.
  • Las Vegas Raiders: With Las Vegas coming off a questionable 2021 NFL Draft, we have absolutely no idea what Jon Gruden and the Raiders are doing. What we do know is that Gruden has targeted big-name receivers in the past. He’s also clearly calling the shots in Vegas with general manager Mike Mayock having one foot out the door. Perhaps, a trade with the Atlanta Falcons for Jones could make sense here.

This article first appeared on Sportsnaut and was syndicated with permission.

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