News & Analysis

Hartitz: 9 Fantasy Football Takeaways from the Falcons Trading Julio Jones to the Titans

Dec 22, 2019; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones (11) warms-up before their game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

What a Sunday: The Atlanta Falcons are reportedly nearing a trade of perennial All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones to the Tennessee Titans. It’s a move that many were anticipating after Jones voiced his displeasure for everyone to hear on Undisputed two weeks ago. But to actually see one of the game’s elites at the position traded away is still wild.

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First things first: Jones is anything but washed. Maybe he’s not in a class by himself these days like we saw for large portions of the last decade; you still don’t need more than two hands to count the number of receivers you’d rather have on your football team.

  • PFF receiving grade: 86.4 (No. 11 among 84 WRs with 50-plus targets in 2020)
  • Yards per reception: 15.1 (tied for No. 15)
  • WR rating: 131.5 (No. 6)
  • Yards per route run: 2.6 (No. 4)

The latter metric tells you all you need to know about Jones’ standing in the present-day NFL: Only Davante Adams (2.96), Justin Jefferson (2.66) and A.J. Brown (2.65) were more efficient on a per-route basis.

Life is far different in 2021 than it was in 2011. Through it all, Jones remains anyone’s idea of an elite WR. Credit to the Titans for acquiring Jones’ services; all 32 NFL teams would be better off with him than without.

Of course, fantasy football isn’t always a reflection on the league’s best players. We want to chase volume over talent, and this move has several notable shockwaves for the parties involved. My nine key takeaways from this move are as follows:

1. Ryan Tannehill is the best late-round QB available at the moment

I was already on this fact before the trade: It makes little to no sense that Tannehill is going as the QB16 on Underdog Fantasy. Yes, this offense will continue to feed Derrick Henry all the work he can handle. Also yes, this hasn’t stopped the artist known as TanneThrill from functioning as the QB10 in fantasy points per game in 2019-2020. Losing OC Arthur Smith to the Falcons isn’t ideal; getting back their monster No. 1 WR is.

2. Derrick Henry remains locked in as a top-five fantasy RB

The only RBs I’d draft ahead of Henry at the moment are Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook and Saquon Barkley. With that said: They’re all in the same tier and worthy of similar consideration at the top of fantasy drafts of all shapes and sizes. Targeting pass-catching RBs is usually the rule in fantasyland; Henry has proven time and time again that he’s a walking-talking enigma as both a real life and fantasy RB.

3. It’s still AJB WR1 szn, but the chances of it being *THE* WR1 szn are gone

I wrote about Brown’s chances at taking another leap in 2021 last week and noted the following in the event that Jones would be traded to the Falcons:

“It’s actually scary how similar the numbers are that Jones and Davis put up last season. Adding another top option like Julio would undoubtedly knock Brown a few spots down the ranks, but it’s not like he’d be close to falling out of the top-12 WRs.”

Take it from AJB himself: This shouldn’t be anything resembling a real issue.

Alas, we can no longer project Brown for the sort of gaudy target total we were hoping for. This is why I’m forced to now rank the likes of Tyreek Hill, Stefon Diggs, DeAndre Hopkins, Michael Thomas and Keenan Allen ahead of him. I believe this WR7-11 range is the right spot for Brown. Personally, I have a bit more faith in the likes of D.K. Metcalf, Justin Jefferson and (now) Calvin Ridley due to each having a bit less competition for the overall No. 1 job.

At the end of the day, you’ll still be ecstatic to have Brown on your fantasy team in 2021 and especially beyond. Take advantage of this newfound buy-low window in dynasty land while you can.

4. Julio stays steady as a borderline WR1

I haven’t adjusted my ranking on Jones as my WR14, ahead of the likes of Diontae Johnson, Allen Robinson, the Buccaneers/Rams WRs and more. Only the Lions and Jaguars had more available targets than the Titans entering the offseason; I’m still fully expecting Julio to eat, even if the days of him seeing 150-plus targets are likely over.

It’d be easier to project Jones, who turned 32 in February, as a lower-end WR2 if we could have more confidence in this defense not sucking again. Ultimately, the Titans joined the Raiders as the top two most sensitive teams in terms of difference in points per game rank and points per game allowed rank.

Expect Tennessee to need to keep their foot on the gas in order to keep up in the scoring department in 2021, and there’s no reason to believe high-efficiency talents like Jones and AJB won’t be able to make the most out of their collective abilities.

Again: Julio remains one of the best WRs alive.

5. Draft Adam Trautman ahead of Anthony Firkser

Both players were borderline TE1s before this trade. Meow one of them is the clear-cut No. 3 pass-game option in their offense. Don’t be afraid to complete Titans stacks in the later rounds with Firkser, but generally give me the Saints’ likely every-down TE who possesses a higher target ceiling at this point.

6. Let someone else draft Matt Ryan

More play-action for Ryan under new head coach Arthur Smith is expected and will be welcomed, if only his ex-BFF was still in town. The team’s decision to invest in Kyle Pitts instead of a young QB calms concerns over Ryan’s immediate future; the 36-year-old should have every opportunity in the world to improve upon last season’s QB15 finish in fantasy points per game.

With that said: I’m out of the Ryan business in fantasy land without Jones attached. This isn’t to suggest Calvin Ridley and Pitts can’t be a great one-two punch immediately, but we were already working with one of the league’s least-mobile QBs, and now there’s plenty of reason to believe Ryan’s efficiency will fall off without Jones.

Overall, Ryan played in nine games with Jones either sidelined or limited to fewer than 50% of the offense's snaps. In those performances he largely struggled, limping to 238 pass yards-1 TD-1 INT, 285-0-0, 226-0-1, 232-0-2, 185-2-1, 224-1-3, 356-3-0, 300-2-0 and 265-2-0 performances. Perhaps the Falcons are bad enough on defense to force Ryan into a league-high mark in passing volume; I just think there are far better investments in the later rounds of fantasy drafts.

7. Calvin Ridley is more locked in than ever as a fantasy WR1

I was a bit skeptical of Ridley repeating his top-12 performance from last season with a healthier Julio involved, but at this point in time I’ve moved him from WR13 to WR9 thanks to the likelihood that he’s fed all the targets he can handle. Even this spot seems a bit low. The new trendy thing with projecting any “No. 2” WR without their No. 1 teammate is to assume they’ll follow JuJu Smith-Schuster‘s path to mediocrity; just realize Ridley still balled the hell out with Jones sidelined or limited in 2021.

  • Week 2: 7 receptions-109 yards-2 TD (10 targets)
  • Week 3: 5-110-0 (13)
  • Week 4: 0-0-0 (5 – blame Ryan)
  • Week 5: 8-136-0 (10)
  • Week 11: 5-90-0 (9)
  • Week 12: 6-50-1 (9)
  • Week 14: 8-124-1 (12)
  • Week 15: 10-163-1 (14)
  • Week 16: 5-130-0 (9)
  • Week 17: 8-52-0 (12)

8. Russell Gage is a solid WR3

The Falcons’ newfound No. 2 WR will likely rocket up rankings, and he should! There’s now plenty of potential for a triple-digit target workload; just realize the overall efficiency of this passing game is likely to decrease. I’m comfortable selecting PFF’s highest-graded passer from 2020 as a borderline WR3 in fantasyland, but we should still fully expect him to finish outside of this passing game’s top two targets.

9. Continue to treat Kyle Pitts as the exception to the rule of not drafting rookie tight ends

PFF stated the following about Pitts in our 2021 NFL Draft Guide:

“I'm no fan of drafting a tight end early — they can be taken out of game plans too easily if they can't separate man coverage. The good news is that Pitts would still be a first-rounder if you just called him a wide receiver. He's already shown he can separate against high-level corners and averaged 4.91 yards per route vs. man coverage this year — third-highest of any player in the country and nearly two yards more than any other tight end. That's different. Pitts also took a considerable step forward as a run blocker this year, although that's still going to be an issue in the NFL.”

Pitts lined up in the slot or out wide on 42% of his snaps during his three-year career at Florida. As Florida head coach Dan Mullens said: “He’s an elite wide receiver and an elite tight end.” Pitts himself has stated that “no teams have mentioned” him playing wide receiver, although they’ve brought up using him all over the formation.

Pitts is closer to a modern-day receiver than yesterday’s tight end. Today’s brand of football has embraced the passing game and hybrid players more than ever before; any coach who can't find a way to get high-end production out of Pitts because he doesn’t fit into their “system” should be publicly chastised to no end. Don’t be surprised if his rookie year numbers more closely resemble the sort of receivers he’s being drafted next to as opposed to past first-year tight ends.

The only tight ends I’d draft ahead of Pitts: Travis Kelce, Darren Waller, George Kittle and T.J. Hockenson. That’s it.

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