Julio Jones will remain in the headlines until a resolution is reached between the All-Pro receiver and the Falcons. There are a few different things contributing to the possibility of Atlanta trading away one of the best players in franchise history. First off, the salary cap has been a pressing need all offseason and will continue to be in 2022. The five largest contracts — Matt Ryan’s, Jake Matthews’s, Deion Jones’s, Grady Jarrett’s, and Julio’s — are where the issues stem from. Three have been addressed via restructures, while Jarrett’s has been untouched. Secondly, Jones requested a trade months ago, which was just brought to light recently. Now, it is no longer a question of if he’ll get traded, but when and for what in return. So, assuming he plays 2021 in a different uniform, who will replace the massive hole and loss of production?
Calvin Ridley will assume most of the responsibility at first, and he’s already proven what he can be without Julio Jones — finishing tied for fifth in the league in receiving yards and scoring nine touchdowns in just 15 games, resulting in a second-team All-Pro nomination. According to Pro Football Focus, no receiver had more deep targets (36) or receptions (16) in 2020 than Ridley. Without his Alabama counterpart, Ridley will establish himself among the elite pass catchers in this league. Fontenot picked up his fifth-year option, which is fully guaranteed for next season, but I wouldn’t be shocked if he was extended before suiting up in 2022.
Ridley showed he is ready to step into a WR1 role, but Russell Gage also proved he is ready for the WR2 responsibilities. The former sixth-round pick set career highs in every major receiving category — 109 targets, 72 receptions, 786 yards, and four touchdowns. The former LSU Tiger emerging last year makes a separation with Jones much more palatable because he’s fully capable of being the team’s second option at wideout.
It’s impossible to talk about replacing Jones’s production without mentioning the new unicorn in town, Kyle Pitts. Though he isn’t a wide receiver, the fourth overall pick is a matchup nightmare just like Julio Jones. I fully expect Pitts to be the focal point of this offense because he can be used in every alignment as a tight end or wide receiver. The former Florida Gator was used in almost every scenario possible at college and was effective all over the field. There’s no doubt in my mind that Pitts will challenge many records held by Julio Jones before he’s done in Atlanta.
Arthur Smith loves using tight ends in his offense, which inherently makes Julio Jones leaving a little easier to stomach. Hayden Hurst and Pitts will be on the field for a sizeable amount of snaps, and that’s not even including the three tight end sets that include Lee Smith. [Arthur] Smith’s offense would surely benefit from having two receivers, such as Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, but as he’s shown in the past, the scheme makes the players (not the other way around) most of the time. Now, Smith might have someone who could prove that statement completely false as Pitts looks to set the league on fire.