Everyone knows that Julio Jones wants to be traded. Everyone knows the Atlanta Falcons don’t have a lot of money. Everyone knows Jones’ contract is due a lot of money. Everyone knows a bunch of teams want Jones on their squad. Everyone knows not a lot of teams have Jones-level money.
So there we are. That’s what everyone knows. And because we all know it, the expectation is that Jones will have to restructure his contract with the team that ends up acquiring him. By the end of the season, it was already expected that the Falcons’ cap situation would force them into restructures for such star players as Matt Ryan (happened), Jones, and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett (yet to happen).
Of course, an acquiring team could be in a better cap situation than the Falcons, making a restructure seem less likely. But given the mechanics of NFL contracts, a trade still leaves a restructure as reasonably possible.
The vast majority of NFL restructures turn base salary into bonus money. Base salary is paid out in game checks across the course of a season and is non-guaranteed money. Bonuses, on the other hand, are guaranteed money paid in cash to the player at the moment the contract is signed. But from a cap accounting perspective, bonus money is prorated across several seasons. That’s why, when a player gets a $10M signing bonus on a five-year contract, it counts for $2M on each year of the contract—even though the player already has all $10M in hand.
Jones’ 2021 cap hit currently sits at $23.05M for the Falcons. The non-guaranteed base salary on the contract sits at $15.3M, and bonus money accounts for the next $7.75M. Because bonus money remains the responsibility of the team that originally signed the contract (remember, that bonus money has already been paid to the player), Jones’ cap hit for the team acquiring him would only be $15.3. That’s a lot of money, but because all of it currently sits in the non-guaranteed column of base salary, that money can be converted into a signing bonus and prorated across the remaining years of the contract.
Justis Mosqueda for Acme Packing Company wrote about this restructure for the sake of the Packers, but it applies to any team. With a mandatory base salary of $1.05M, Jones’ cap hit in 2021 could drop from $15.3 to a fresh $5.8M. Such a small figure suddenly puts Jones into range for pretty much every team in the league. And sure: that money doesn’t just go anywhere. Jones’ cap hits in 2022 and 2023 would both jump up $5M. But with cap relief coming in the post-COVID ballooning of new TV contracts, that’s a pill you can swallow.
So teams want Jones (everyone knows that). Now we know that teams can make Jones’ 2021 cap hit much smaller, thereby making trades a lot more achievable. The next question: will Jones agree to the restructure?
After the trade, Jones will have no guaranteed money on his deal, making him imminently cuttable. If ever he’s less valuable than his eight-figure cap hit would imply, the acquiring team can cut him with no penalty. By restructuring the deal, you provide yourself some job security. Jones becomes a $9.5M dead cap hit ($6.75M cap space created) in 2022 and a $4.75M dead cap hit in 2023 ($11.5M cap space created). So the earliest the new team would cut him is likely 2023—that’s solid. Considering that the restructure isn’t a pay cut and immediately puts money in Jones’ pocket, there’s really no downside for Jones.
Jones has been a market-setting player since his rookie deal. He signed his first extension in 2016 after Demaryius Thomas and Dez Bryant both got $70M over five years; he got $71.25M, and beat them both in guaranteed money. In 2019, with two years still left on that deal, the Falcons signed Jones to another three-year extension (read: another five-year contract), worth a whopping $66M and $64M due at signing. That level of guaranteed money for an NFL player was unheard of, and we can only assume that deal was signed because Jones wanted to acquire more guaranteed cash for the sake of job security, as well as having a competitive contract in the wide receiver market.
So a restructure for Jones seems almost inevitable. It’ll put more teams in the market for his services, and ensure he has stability with that new team when he arrives. With that restructure may come a new contract altogether, depending on the priorities of Jones (does he want a one-year deal to hit free agency?) and the acquiring team (did they trade so much capital that they want to lock Jones down for multiple seasons?). But the contract that currently sits on Jones’ cap sheet simply isn’t the contract he’s going to play under in 2021, whether in Atlanta or elsewhere.