After what some are saying was a years-long process of tension, Julio Jones has been traded from the Atlanta Falcons to the Tennessee Titans. While many in Saints circles rejoiced to see that Jones was no longer going to be in the NFC South, many also noted his struggles to find the endzone against the New Orleans Saints defense. The benefit of both can be true. The Saints will still see Jones in the 2021 season, as they’ll travel to Nashville for their Week 10 matchup with the Titans. But when it comes to Atlanta, how much changes?
I contend that not much has changed for the Saints defense’s ability to match up with Atlanta’s offense going into 2021 based specifically on this trade in a vacuum. The team effectively goes from having to account for one incredibly athletic, prototypically-sized receiver in Jones to another in fourth overall selection Kyle Pitts.
The Julio Jones trade will bring upon more bad than good for the Falcons in the immediate future. However, there are two areas where they could see some benefit. Fortunately for the Saints, the first will be contingent upon historically rare development.
Since the merger in 1970, only three tight ends have ever put up more than 800 receiving yards in their rookie season. Two which happened before the 1990’s and arguably the best rookie season at the position was put together in 1980 by Kellen Winslow who reeled in 50 catches for 789 yards and seven touchdowns.
Perhaps the best recent season by a rookie tight end would be none other than Kansas City Chiefs star Travis Kelce in 2014. 60 catches, 778 yards, and five scores. Evan Engram notched six touchdowns in his first season as well.
Despite all of this, Kyle Pitts is considered to be something special coming into the league. And while that kind of attitude around a young player is often unfair, there is a clear path to success for the 6-foot-6, 240 pound pass-catcher. Particularly against New Orleans.
The Saints were one of the worst redzone defenses in the NFL last season, allowing a touchdown percentage of over 65%. While Julio Jones was underutilized toward the end of his tenure in Atlanta, there’s no reason to expect that Pitts will be. Especially considering Arthur Smith’s track record with Jonnu Smith in Tennessee.
In the redzone over the last three seasons, Julio Jones received fewer targets than 16 players, generated a lower completion percentage than 19 players, and caught fewer touchdowns than 29 pass-catchers around the league.
Yes, Jones missed time in 2020. But his 40 games over that three year span isn’t far off from some players at the top of the list. DeVante Adams (41), Michal Thomas (39), Zach Ertz (42), as well as Alvin Kamara and JuJu Smith-Schuster (44) all fall in the same range of games played as Jones, but top ten in red zone targets.
While that isn’t entirely on Jones, the playcaller has also changed in Atlanta. With Arthur Smith now at the helm, his usage of tight end Jonnu Smith in the redzone in 2020 suggests heavy volume potential for rookie Kyle Pitts.
In 2020, Jonnu Smith saw fewer redzone targets (17) than only 8 players and fewer touchdowns (8) within the 20’s than only four players.
This signifies what should be a clear role for Kyle Pitts during his rookie season. Along with the particularity that it, of course, falls into an area of necessary improvement for the Saints defense. It’s especially easy to remember the early season struggles in scoring distance for New Orleans, specifically against tight ends and defending Y-leak patterns and concepts. Now, with youth at all three levels of the defense, they’ll have to be prepared for more from their bitter rival. Even if Pitts doesn’t have an unprecedented breakout season, he could be a nuisance if the Saints reprise any struggles in this phase of the game.
The second element where Atlanta is in position to benefit is related to the vacated salary cap expenses that go along with trading the seven-time Pro Bowl receiver. This is a benefit that is not reliant upon re-writing history thanks to the new GM in town. The Falcons get back over $15M following the trade. A portion of that will go to signing their draft class, but the majority will still be available for the team to remain active over the offseason.
$8.6 million after the draft class is signed https://t.co/LatWCGPJwV— Aaron Freeman (@falcfans) June 6, 2021
The Falcons have a ton of spots where they can divert that spending. They could work to improve their secondary, their pass rush, or add another receiver to the mix. If they do this effectively, they could be a bigger threat than initially expected after shipping away their future Hall of Fame receiver.
With Terry Fontenot in the building, who was responsible for New Orleans landing free agents like Demario Davis, Malcom Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, and Latavius Murray among others, it’s hard to anticipate he’ll fumble this chance.
Keeping a keen eye on the moves made by both the Falcons and the Saints as the offseason continues, as well as the progression of Kyle Pitts, may determine just how pesky Atlanta could end up being in 2021.
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