The last remaining building block of a fast and physical regime long forgotten may soon be leaving Atlanta.
As part of finally turning the page on the Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff era, the new duo of Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot have made a number of tough choices. Franchise players like Matt Ryan and Julio Jones were traded, while Calvin Ridley almost was. Russell Gage, Keanu Neal, Damontae Kazee, and Foye Oluokun were more home-grown players who are now on different teams.
Those losses hurt, whether they were expected or not.
Another player is expected to soon exit the team, but it is expected to be less painful. Per Jeff Schultz of The Athletic, Deion Jones leaving Atlanta is “likely imminent.” After an offseason of additions at inside linebacker and following a couple of rocky seasons, this move has begun to feel more and more likely.
If true, this is quite the fall for Jones. The second-round linebacker out of LSU looked an odd fit as middle linebacker with elite athleticism countered with serious size concerns at merely 222 pounds. He put those doubts to rest faster than anyone expected, as he quickly made PFWA’s All-Rookie Team, the Pro Bowl the following year, and before long was becoming the new prototype for linebackers. We can never forget that game-sealing pick against Drew Brees.
That all feels ages ago. Jones signed a four-year, $57 million deal before the 2019 season. It almost looked like a sneaky bargain for an impact player with only his best years ahead of him. Then…not. The big hits almost entirely disappeared. That sideline-to-sideline speed was no longer putting Jones in position to make big plays. His poor performances were overlooked for a while thanks to a defense falling to the bottom of the league, but he was under heavy scrutiny a year ago.
Whether Dan Quinn, Raheem Morris, or Dean Pees have been at the helm of the defense recently, Jones has been more liability than strength for Atlanta. The Falcons are rebuilding and Jones doesn’t seem to fit in their plans. As Schultz has alluded to, and in this most recent article specifically called out, Jones was expected to become a leader for the Falcons. However, per Schultz:
If Jones had a leadership presence for younger players, the team could justify keeping him in 2022. But he has been anything but that.
The Falcons can get some solid cap savings if they can trade Jones, which shouldn’t feel impossible. He is only 27, after all. He has had a few notable games, such as notching Defensive Player of the Week, indicating a reclamation project could net serious benefits. A post-June 1st trade gives the Falcons $14.7 million in cap space, while a post-June 1st cut nets the Falcons just over $1 million in cap.
Perhaps Fontenot can bridge the gap, and pay part of Jones’ guaranteed cash to facilitate a trade (read: pay part of his salary and the receiving team gets a young, Pro Bowl linebacker for “cheap” in 2022). There have to be plenty of teams able to look at Jones, given his age and talent, and think a change of scenery will have him playing at a high level again for them. That’s especially true when Dan Quinn, Raheem Morris, and Jeff Ulbrich all are running defenses and all coached Jones in the not-too-distant past, even if it might feel like it was a long time ago.
It’s not a lock, but if the team can find a partner, Jones looks to be gone. He’s not the future for the Falcons, as the flurry of draft picks and signings at inside linebacker this offseason suggest, but hopefully he can get back to form. It just likely won’t be in Atlanta.