FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Julio Jones won’t tip his hand.
If the Atlanta Falcons star wide receiver is upset about the status of his contract negotiations, he won’t voice his displeasure publicly. If he’s happy with the progress, he won’t boast about it, either.
Jones’ even-keeled approach keeps folks guessing as he awaits a deal expected to make him the NFL’s highest-paid wide receiver. The New Orleans Saints' Michael Thomas, 26, reset the market last week with a five-year extension worth $96.25 million. Yet Falcons owner Arthur Blank and general manager Thomas Dimitroff know they'll have to surpass Thomas' deal to reach agreement with Jones.
So what’s the holdup?
The Falcons have made an offer, although the specifics are unclear. As with any negotiation, one would expect a back-and-forth between Jones’ agent, Jimmy Sexton, and the Falcons before coming to terms on a deal that makes sense for both sides. The Falcons, who have already given extensions to defensive tackle Grady Jarrett (four years, $68 million) and linebacker Deion Jones (four years, $57 million) this offseason, have to be mindful of future salary-cap ramifications, although Julio Jones’ 2019 cap figure of $13.467 million should become lower following an extension. Sexton has to be mindful of getting the 30-year-old Jones as much money as possible before age slows his client down.
One aspect has been clear from the beginning, although it hasn’t dominated the conversation: Jones wants to set the receiver market for a long time -- even if publicly he says he doesn’t care about what other receivers make.
So when numbers are thrown out about topping Thomas, it’s not as easy as satisfying Jones with a couple of million more a year. Think more in the $25 million per year range, a number that seems unlikely to be reached by other top receivers such as A.J. Green of the Cincinnati Bengals, Amari Cooper of the Dallas Cowboys or Tyreek Hill from the Kansas City Chiefs.
Remember the eight-year, $132 million deal former Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson signed with the Lions back in 2012? Johnson was considered the league’s top receiver and topped all receivers with an average of $16.207 million per year. No receiver surpassed his average before he retired in 2016.
Can Jones envision a similar scenario?
"Like, for me, it’s just knowing your worth," Jones said. "I know what my worth is, what I bring to the team and the organization, who I am as a player and a teammate, everything. You know what you’re getting when you see me, when I come to work. What you see is what you get.
"I haven’t even thought about Calvin Johnson’s contract. ... I am who I am. There’s only one of me. That’s how I look at it. I don’t really compare myself to anyone else."
Jones enters this season riding five straight with at least 80 catches and at least 1,400 receiving yards. His career average of 96.7 receiving yards per game is the top average in NFL history. He’s been the consummate pro, whether it means tutoring the young receivers or playing peacemaker when teammates clash.
The Falcons understand Jones’ value, which is why Blank vowed to make Jones a Falcon "for life." Jones proceeded with business as usual, reporting to mandatory minicamp and training camp while trusting Blank to make good on his word. Dimitroff said he knows making Jones the highest-paid receiver is a priority. But the GM admitted things got a little “dusty’’ before the Falcons renegotiated Jones’ deal last season, which led to Jones earning an additional $2.9 million for 2018.
Jones, who signed his revised contract last July 27 with an assurance the team would conduct good-faith negotiations on another extension in 2019, had to wait a CBA-mandated 12 months before he could renegotiate again. That window has cleared, so he sits awaiting an extension with two years and more than $21 million remaining on his contract. It wouldn’t seem out of the realm of possibility for him to seek a four-year, $100 million extension with $70 million guaranteed to distance himself from the others. But Jones probably wouldn’t want a structure similar to Thomas, as the Saints have the luxury of getting out of the deal after a few years.
Jones might not dwell on what others around him are getting paid, but he's aware.
"If guys earn their money, they're deserving of it," Jones said. "I'm not knocking nobody for what they should get or shouldn't get. My thing is, I'm here, I do this, and it's more so for my family. It's not just me as an individual. I'm trying to do this for my family. I've got to make sure they're straight. It's not about me. I've got to take care of my people. It's that simple."
The Falcons have limited Jones’ workload in training camp. He won't play in the preseason games. Never once has Jones or the team implied that his lack of participation in training camp has anything to do with his contract.
But what happens if the Falcons enter Week 1 of the regular season and Jones still doesn’t have a new deal?
"Hey, listen, that ain’t on me," Jones said. "I’m not thinking about that. That’s between the organization and my agent. If we come to an agreement, we’re going to get it done. Whenever they get it done, they get it done. That’s where I’m at. I’m just doing what I’ve got to do."
If negotiations drag out to the season opener on Sept. 8, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he’s not in uniform against Minnesota. It would make perfect sense, actually. But all indications are the Falcons want to avoid things getting to that point.