On April 28, 2011, the Atlanta Falcons made a stunning draft day trade: They gave up five draft picks to move up to the 6th spot and grab a star receiver from Alabama, Julio Jones. The Falcons gave up two firsts, a second, and two fourths.
For two years, the trade looked like the right move: Jones had a strong rookie year (959 yards, 8 TDs) and a phenomenal sophomore campaign (1,198 yards, 10 TDs). He rapidly rose into the upper crust of receivers in the NFL (for my money, Calvin Johnson, Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas, and AJ Green). Atlanta reached the NFC title game in 2013 on the strength of a formidable offense that covered up the warts of an ugly defense: QB Matt Ryan, WR Roddy White, TE Tony Gonzalez, and Jones. The Falcons lost at home, 28-24, to the 49ers, but Atlanta looked like a Super Bowl contender for years to come.
Then the Falcons sputtered out of the gate in 2013 – narrow losses to New Orleans and Miami, then a stirring rally vs. New England fell short, dropping Atlanta to 1-3. Trouble really hit Monday night: The Falcons had their pants pulled down at home by the Jets on Monday Night Football and lost on a last second field goal, 30-28. Twelve hours later, the 1-4 season turned into an absolute disaster: Jones was out for the season with a foot injury.
Say goodnight, Atlanta.
Atlanta has plenty of winnable games left on the schedule , but it’d still be a minor miracle if the Falcons got to 8-8 with the current status of their offensive line (terrible), defense (near the bottom of the league again in yards per play allowed), lack of a running game (Steven Jackson, still hurt) and now their best weapon (Jones) gone.
This might make Falcons fans cry: How difficult will it be to get back to the top? Well, they gave Roddy White $50 million over six years in 2009, Matt Ryan $103 million last summer, and they’ll have to extend Jones after this season.
If you didn’t think it was possible to go from the cusp of the Super Bowl to a Top 10 draft pick, the Falcons have done it. [Maybe it's an epidemic? The Steelers and Giants are sort of going through the same thing, though neither was a playoff team in 2013.]
Atlanta GM Thomas Dimitroff said last week he had no regrets about the Julio Jones trade, which is understandable. Problem is, it’ll be a topic that lingers all season, because there won’t be many on-field positives to talk about. This will be a pivotal offseason for Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith – not because their jobs are in jeopardy, but because there’s a lot of work to be done. They’ll need to shore up the defense and offensive lines, replace the retiring Tony Gonzalez, and even though White is a massive fan favorite, the guess here is they don’t retain him after the 2014 season. How can they extend him with so many holes and so much money coming to Jones? It’ll be similar to the Wes Welker situation last offseason in New England.
The only saving grace for Atlanta? Carolina and Tampa have a long way to go in the NFC South – one may be getting a new coach in the offseason; the other will be getting a new QB – so climbing back into the discussion with the Saints won’t be too challenging.