After weeks of waiting and discussing possibilities, Julio Jones is officially coming to the Tennessee Titans. That is HUGE news for an offense that lost a good portion of its receiving production from the 2020 season and didn’t really backfill much of it. Adding someone with the pedigree Jones has will be great to take most of those looks, and more importantly, alleviate some of the burdens that were looking to be taken by star running back Derrick Henry, budding superstar AJ Brown, and the ever-steady Ryan Tannehill.
This piece is going to get into just what Julio Jones brings to the offense, and how that will impact Henry, Brown, and Tannehill.
What are the Titans getting in Julio Jones?
First, I want to take a look at what the Titans are getting in Julio Jones as a player. Entering his age 32 season, Jones is coming off of what has already been a Hall of Fame-caliber career in Atlanta, accounting for 848 receptions, 12,896 receiving yards, and 60 touchdowns over 135 career games, as well as the current record for yards per game in NFL history, coming in at 95.5. Jones is coming off of his lowest season production-wise since 2013, a year in which he played five games.
In 2020, Jones accounted for 51 catches for 771 yards and 3 TD’s over the span of nine games. I mentioned he’s 32, and he is coming off of an injury-plagued season, but the Falcons were a bad team last season. Had they been competitive, Jones might have fought through those injuries and made a push to play more, but the team was one of the bottom feeders of the NFL last season. It’s not a shock that Jones decided to not play banged up. There’s a lot of assumption in that statement, but I don’t think it’s that big of a jump.
However, even if Jones just gives the Titans the level of production he gave ATL in 2020, which is a pretty safe bet, this addition will be huge for what it can open up for the Titans’ offense. Jones is still a very good athlete for his size, (6-3, 220), and that athleticism allows for him to continue to excel at the two things the Titans’ WR room is lacking outside of AJ Brown, which is being explosive after the catch and being able to attack a defense down the field.
His average yards after catch (YAC) came in last season at 4.5, which is still respectable, and not too far behind someone like Tyreek Hill, who is widely regarded as one of the best YAC receivers in football, who averaged five YAC. Jones’ average depth of target on throws in his direction also comes in at 11.2, which shows that he was still testing teams deep last season, injury and all. IF you can get a healthy Jones for 2020, you’re looking at those numbers ballooning in 2021.
How does having Jones in the fold impact AJ Brown?
A lot of the discourse I’ve read online before the trade has been how AJ Brown was in line for Davante Adams’s level of targets. He was an early darling of many fantasy football gurus, and now they’re all turning bearish on Brown, thinking that Jones is going to take away some of the targets that were bound to go to Brown. However, I don’t think that’s the case.
Let me explain; if you would have told me two years ago we’d have Julio Jones and AJ Brown, and Brown deserved more targets, I would have told you that you needed to see a doctor, something ain’t clicking upstairs. But as I said earlier in the article, Jones is 32 years old; he’s no spring chicken. His impact on the offense is twofold; yes, he will put up numbers, but more importantly, he’s going to force coverages to stay honest and not focus on taking Brown away.
Brown is emerging as a superstar in the league, and defenses have taken notice. If you’d have come into the 2021 season boasting Josh Reynolds (who is a very good number third option) opposite of AJ Brown, that would have allowed defenses to roll coverages AJ’s way, limiting the impact he would have. However, trotting out Julio freaking Jones opposite of Brown, even if he’s not the player he was two to three years ago, will 100% force defenses to pay attention to Jones, and open up looks for Brown.
In an interview, Sunday afternoon, Titans’ GM Jon Robinson spoke to Nashville media about Jones, and one of Robinson’s comments about his conversations with Jones has really stood out to me. Robinson said, “His goal is to win, that’s more important to him than targets” (per 1045 The Zone on Twitter).
That tells me, while he’s obviously going to get his share of the targets, he’s more than willing to sit back and let Brown carry the lion’s share of the work outside. And him simply being on the field with Brown is going to open up that opportunity for Brown to continue to flourish into the star he’s becoming.
How does Julio Jones help make Derrick Henry’s job easier?
The Titans let Corey Davis walk in free agency, and hadn’t really addressed his impact in the passing game until this point. Julio Jones, while a well-regarded player who no doubt has the physical ability, wasn’t known for his blocking prowess (the Josh Reynolds signing does more for Henry in that department). So, what does Jones bring to the Titans running game? In a nutshell, he runs the game the same way he makes AJ Brown’s job easier; he forces the defense to stay honest.
The past two seasons, Derrick Henry has led the NFL in rushing yards when defenses bring an extra man down into the box, with 571 yards against stacked boxes in 2019 and an astounding 702 yards against eight+ man fronts in 2020. Those are ridiculous numbers. Corey Davis, while a fantastic blocking WR, didn’t do much to mitigate those eight-man boxes because the Titans were bringing him in to block often. Even in base sets last season, defenses were still able to cheat towards the line more often than you would like with a back of Henry’s caliber back there, though, the Titans were able to make teams pay for that with Davis some and Brown A LOT last season (more on this point in a minute).
In general, defenses didn’t respect Davis enough to not stack the box and take away the run game. You can bet that Jones is going to demand that respect and will make teams pay if they don’t give him that extra bit of attention. And that alone is going to cause Henry to see lighter boxes, which will open up cleaner rush lanes, and lead to continued, and possibly even more, success.
How does Jones impact Ryan Tannehill’s 2021 outlook?
In all honesty, this is the easiest of the questions to answer. Jones has been the best WR of this generation. When other elite receivers are talked about, they’re compared to Julio Jones by most analysts. He’s the most influential WR in football since Randy Moss in the mid-2000s. Even as he’s aging, Jones is going to demand respect from the opposition, which opens up the offense and makes reads easier and cleaner for Tannehill. Tannehill’s career resurgence has been predicated on easier one-read play action on in-breaking routes, which is an area where Julio Jones still has the chops to excel at.
Building off of the point made in the previous paragraph, Jones has been much more consistent over his career than Davis had been, and that level of consistency is going to do nothing but help open up the offense more. The attention that Jones will demand even as a decoy is going to open things up for guys like Brown, Reynolds, Cam Batson, Anthony Firkser, and crew to really start to get open looks, which again, just helps Tannehill. Jones impact as a WR should reach all three levels, as stated earlier, due to Jones ability as runner after the catch, his proclivity as an intermediate route runner, and his reputation of being able to stretch the field for Tannehill, which has been a bit of weak spot in the Titans passing game outside of AJ Brown.
Also, feel it important to add that Jones has had a ridiculous catch radius his entire career. I can think of three to four huge plays in big moments Jones made in the passing game that were just bad throws that he made a ridiculous adjustment to bring them in and bail out an errant throw. Tannehill has been very accurate since taking over the starting gig in Tennessee, but adding a weapon with a catch radius like Jones is going to do nothing but make his job easier.
Overall, the addition of Julio Jones is one that made too much sense for the Titans not to pull the trigger. He makes the weakest part of the roster much better and even strengthens the TE room just by being on the field. The attention he is going to demand outside is going to open up so many opportunities for other guys all over the field, from Henry to Brown to whoever else is on the field running routes. Not to mention the plays he can make if teams start to slack off of him, which will have a huge impact on the offense as a whole.
The payoff the Titans are going to reap immediately off of the acquisition of Jones will be felt at all levels of the offense, and that’s without Jones even returning to his pre-injury form. If Jones gets back to the HOF caliber player he was in Atlanta for most of his career, you might be talking about the Titans being the best offense in the NFL come next postseason.
All stats via pro-football-reference.com.
Follow me on Twitter @j_noah53 for all of my takes on what happening in the sports world, as well as some thoughts on whatever else is going on outside of sports!