SB LI: Why Belichick was right about Julio Jones

Published: 2/3/2017 11:59:55 AM
Modified: 11/12/2008 3:10:12 PM
HOUSTON — You should always start with the premise that Bill Belichick knows what he’s doing.
 
The greatest football coach of all time is quietly the greatest general manager in NFL history. The Patriots have sustained excellence during his tenure not only because of cutting-edge football tactics, but also because Belichick mastered the art of team building in the salary cap era. That said, everyone had a good chuckle at Belichick’s expense last week when we learned that he advised the Falcons against trading up to draft Julio Jones.
 
Hilarious, right? Here’s the thing: Even if the Falcons beat the Patriots on Sunday in Super Bowl LI, Belichick still got it right. The Falcons made the wrong decision to trade up for Jones. It’s a move that highlights the Patriots’ forward-thinking philosophy. Belichick plays chess. Everyone else thumb wrestles.
 
Yes, Jones is the elite receiver he was supposed to be. The Falcons evaluated the player correctly. He filled the need that Falcons General Manager Thomas Dimitroff had identified entering the 2011 NFL Draft.
 
“We were in a spot where we knew that we wanted an extremely explosive football player that was going to potentially keep defenses on their heels, whether he caught four balls, or whether he caught 14 balls,” Dimitroff said earlier this week. “He’s one of the best players in this league, if not arguably the best.”
 
Granted.
 
But when Belichick advised Dimitroff (a former Pats exec) on the deal to move from 27th to 6th in the draft, the issue was far more complicated than the player alone.
 
“I think Bill is a very thoughtful person,” Dimitroff said. “Our conversation about that had much more to do with, this is something that you better be very sure of, and whether you are or aren’t, it’s going to be with you for the rest of your career. I listened to that of course.”
 
The sloppy consensus holds that Belichick got this one wrong, because A. Jones is great and B. The Falcons made the Super Bowl this year. Here’s why the Falcons were wrong: A. They squandered an absurd amount of draft capital. B. Jones ties up a lot of cap space. As a result, the Falcons are not perennial contenders. Instead, they are occasional contenders, posting just two winning seasons since Jones joined the team (52-44 overall).
 
Yes, Atlanta had deep playoff runs in those two seasons. They reached an NFC Championship in 2012, and won the NFC Championship (and maybe more) this year. In contrast, New England has been in the AFC Championship every year since Jones joined the league, with three conference titles, one Super Bowl victory (and maybe another on Sunday).
 
Is that a fair comparison? Maybe not. The Patriots success predates Jones’ entry into the league. But it shows how the ambitions of team building affect the philosophy. If you want to be a team that competes for a ring every year, you can’t put too many eggs in any given basket. In fact, you need to stockpile both eggs and baskets.  
 
The Falcons gave up a ridiculous bounty to acquire the sixth overall pick in 2001. They sent the 27th overall selection, their 2012 first-rounder, a second-rounder and two fourth-rounders to the Browns. The fact that Cleveland squandered the picks (as the Browns are prone to do) does not acquit Atlanta’s decision to divest five draft choices. In fact, they probably could have done better trading down into the second round and stockpiling more picks.
 
If the Falcons had just stood pat with their picks, consider what they could have done if they’d landed two or three of the following players: Marcus Cannon, Randall Cobb, David DeCastro, Dont’a Hightower, Whitney Mercilus, Nick Perry, Harrison Smith, and Julius Thomas. That’s a sampling of players who were available when the Falcons’ original picks were on the clock.
 
Of course the Falcons knew before they made the pick that Jones would likely command top dollar in his second contract. Otherwise, the deal is a failure. Jones now makes elite money, with cap hit of  $15.9 million this season, accounting for 10 percent of Atlanta’s cap allowance. He and quarterback Matt Ryan combine for about a quarter of the Falcons’ cap. That severely limits Dimitroff’s spending power at other positions, and leaves a lower margin for error.
 
“That’s a challenge,” Dimitroff said, “And you have to be creative with it. … I think we have a really good operation in place to help us make sure that we are spreading the wealth as much as possible.”
 
Speaking of creativity, you know what the Patriots did with the same amount of money Atlanta spent on Jones? They got themselves an entire receiving corps.
 
Chris Hogan ($5.5 million cap hit for 2016), Julian Edelman ($4.4 million), Danny Amendola ($2.9 million), Michael Floyd (a pro-rated $1.3 million) and Malcolm Mitchell ($0.6 million) make a combined $14.7 million against the cap.
 
The Jones trade is Dimitroff’s signature move. It’s the reason the Falcons remain relatively relevant. But it creates roster problems that make prolonged success more difficult to sustain. Consider that when an injured Jones played only five games in 2013, Atlanta went 4-12. Meanwhile, the Pats went 11-5 when they lost Tom Brady in 2008 and are in the Super Bowl now despite playing half the season without Rob Gronkowski.
 
This is due in large part to the fact that Belichick has eschewed moves like the one Dimitroff made in 2011. The Patriots have deftly managed the balance between long- and short-term interests and that is why they compete every year.
 
“Now is important and we want to win now,” Belichick said this week. “We want to have a great football team this year or whatever year we are in. At the same time, we know we are going to have a schedule and we are going to have to play next year. And so I think part of my job is to balance the competition and competiveness of our team for this year with being able to put a competitive team on the field next year.”
 
Dave Brown is a freelance correspondent who covers the Patriots for the Monitor. You can follow him on Twitter @ThatDaveBrown.


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