The quarterback didn’t want to entertain what the Falcons would look like without one of the best receivers in franchise history. Ryan didn’t want to consider his career without the player whom he’d targeted for the most yards and touchdowns.
“He’s probably impacted my career more significantly than any other player,” Ryan said in May. “And I’m really fortunate to be around him for as long as I have.”
That impact will be noticed almost immediately after Jones was traded to Tennessee on Sunday for draft picks. It’s still going to be tough to imagine what Atlanta will look like with Jones playing three hours north.
That said, the Falcons did have a glimpse last season, although in a completely different offense under coordinator Dirk Koetter instead of now under first-year Atlanta head coach Arthur Smith.
In 2020, Ryan had more passing plays without Jones than with him. With Jones, Ryan had a QBR of 83, a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 4.3 and threw for 8.0 yards per attempt. Without him, Ryan’s QBR was 54, his touchdown-to-interception ratio was 1.6 and he threw for 6.8 yards per attempt.
Now will that correlate to 2021? Tough to truly say because of the new scheme and changes in personnel. Part of the reason the Falcons hired Smith was his ability to innovate and get the best out of players like Derrick Henry, Ryan Tannehill, A.J. Brown and Jonnu Smith in Tennessee. He was lauded for his ability to find mismatches.
Now he’ll have to do that without a future Hall of Famer on the roster, which would have been a benefit, but Atlanta still a multitude of options.
Calvin Ridley becomes the clear No. 1 receiver. He has developed into one of the top receivers in the league after having eight 100-yard games last season, including four of his final five, in a breakout 90-catch, 1,374-yard, nine-touchdown year. Five of those 100-yard games came when Jones did not play, so he’s shown he can handle the attention of being a top option.
Russell Gage showed potential when he filled in as a starter last season, catching 72 passes for 786 yards and four touchdowns — three in the final five games.
Tight ends should be more prevalent with a combination of rookie Kyle Pitts — a high-level talent who could make an immediate impact — and one-time first-round pick Hayden Hurst, who said last week he expects to be used more on longer passes in 2021. Hurst is in a contract year, which could provide an extra oomph, and he did catch 56 passes for 571 yards and six touchdowns last season.
It is those four pass-catchers who will likely gain the most from Jones no longer being a Falcon, although other players will benefit, too. Olamide Zaccheaus and Tajae Sharpe — signed in May — have chances to make an impact. Sharpe had his best NFL season (25 catches, 329 yards, four touchdowns) playing for Smith in Tennessee. Zaccheaus has potential for big plays, as does rookie Frank Darby, who was a consistent downfield threat at Arizona State.
Are any of these players — or any of the receivers Atlanta has beyond Ridley — Julio Jones? No. It’s not likely they’ll be close, but they don’t need to be in part due to Ridley.
Plus, the Falcons will have the benefit of time. Atlanta will have a mandatory minicamp this week and an entire training camp to work in a post-Jones world instead of being forced to play without him on the fly.
That includes the past few months, when Ridley and Pitts have trained together, preparing for the 2021 season. This began before they knew they’d be teammates, back when Jones was still a Falcon, Ridley was waiting for the Falcons to pick up his fifth-year option and Pitts didn’t know what team would draft him.
Now it’ll be Ridley and Pitts as the two key pass-catching parts of the Atlanta offense on a Falcons team adjusting to being without Jones, a likely future Hall of Famer, for the first time in a decade.