How the Julio Jones Trade Shaped the Rosters of the Browns and Falcons
With a surprising Tuesday afternoon cut of Phil Taylor, the Cleveland Browns released the last player acquired in the 2011 trade that sent the Atlanta Falcons the sixth overall pick,and, in turn, Julio Jones.
At the time -- and still now -- the Falcons gave up a lot to move from the 27th pick to 6th for the Alabama receiver. That trade was major at the time and is still showing its impact on the makeup of both teams involved.
For the specifics of the trade, Atlanta sent Cleveland picks 27, 59 and 124 from the 2011 Draft and also threw in a first- and fourth-round pick the following year. It’s easy now, especially with the departure of Taylor, to rule Cleveland as the loser of the trade, but that shouldn’t be the case.
According to the draft value calculator put together by Chase Stuart at Football Perspective, which uses Approximate Value (AV) instead of the points system on the old Jimmy Johnson chart, Cleveland got more value than they sent in just 2011 alone. According to the model, the sixth pick is worth 23.2 AV over the first five years of the deal.
By receiving the 27th, 59th and 124th pick of that year, the Browns got 26.1 AV, a return of 112.5 percent and additional first- and fourth-round picks.
What happened after the trade, though, does change the perception of what was accomplished.
No one should fault the Browns for making that trade; it’s something a smart front office should do every time. Getting those multiple chances of picks is the type of thing general managers want and increases the odds that one or more of those players are going to hit. What we can fault the Browns for is missing on just about every pick they received in the trade.
What can can look at here is the Net Expected Points (NEP) of some of the players Cleveland drafted with these picks, and what could have been. NEP factors in on-field variables such as down-and-distance in order to compare a team or player’s production to historical expectation levels.
With the 59th pick in 2011, the Browns selected wide receiver Greg Little out of North Carolina, five picks before the Green Bay Packers took a wide receiver from Kentucky, Randall Cobb. Since entering the league, Little has been one of the worst receivers in the NFL.
In his three seasons with the Browns, Little ranked 102nd, 43rd and 112th in Reception NEP per target among players with at least 30 targets. He spent 2014 with the Cincinnati Bengals, played on 12.9 percent of Cincinnati’s offense snaps and is currently not on an NFL roster. With the 124th pick that year, Cleveland selected fullback Owen Marecic, who spent only two years with the Browns before playing 2013 in San Francisco and not playing last season.
The following year, Cleveland used the 2012 fourth-round pick received from Atlanta in a package to move up one spot in the first-round from fourth overall to third overall in order to select Trent Richardson. There’s been plenty said and written about Richardson, and he's certainly not the worst running back ever, but let’s recap just once more.
In his rookie season Richardson ranked 72nd out of 115 running backs with at least 10 carries in Rushing NEP per attempt. He was then traded to Indianapolis after only two games for a first-round pick which the Browns then used to move up in the first-round of the 2014 Draft to select Johnny Manziel. So in a way, Manziel is the final link to the Julio Jones trade.
Whether that makes Cleveland fans feel any better is debatable.
The Manziel pick came two years after the technical last selection from the group of Falcons picks was used on Brandon Weeden. In Weeden’s two years with Cleveland, he ranked 28th out of 40 quarterbacks and 38th out of 45 quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs in Passing NEP per play, and that performance placed him as the current backup quarterback in Dallas.
It’s truly amazing how little value the Browns got back from the array of draft picks. Only two of the five players selected exceeded the average Approximate Value expected by draft positioning. We shouldn’t expect the haul to come out like the Rams had after the Robert Griffin III trade, but odds are at least one of those players should have hit, or at least seen a second contract.
Phil Taylor was the closest, but after the Browns used the 12th pick in the 2015 Draft on Danny Shelton, Taylor’s role as the nose tackle was replaceable. All of those picks were great in theory, but put to practice the execution was unbelievably horrendous and still leaves the Browns with a lack of talent along much of the roster. Missing out on two, and arguably three first-round picks can have that type of effect.
Our projections have the Browns as the 26th ranked team in the league by nERD entering this season.
Jones and Holes
It’s no question the Falcons received the best player in the deal, but it came at a cost. With the loss of those five picks, Atlanta had depth issues it is just beginning to recover from.
Despite ranking no worse than ninth over the past three seasons in Adjusted NEP per play on offense, the Falcons have struggled to fill holes, especially on the defensive side of the ball over the past two seasons. Those 2011 and 2012 picks which would have become second-, third- and fourth-year players in those seasons developing into at least role players were not on the roster to provide depth.
The Falcons were a stars and scrubs team, and while those stars -- Matt Ryan, Tony Gonzalez and Jones -- were among league leaders in NEP at their positions, the scrubs were not enough to provide even average value.
Take the struggling defense the Falcons have put out the past two years. Atlanta dropped to the worst defense in the league by Adjusted Defensive NEP per play in 2013 and was 29th last season. Castoffs like Tyson Jackson and Josh Wilson were receiving playing time instead of younger players filling those roles because those younger players weren’t on the team.
While the Falcons have worked to fill out the roster with more useful role players, they used up the last two seasons of Jones’ affordable rookie contract not competing in part because some of the holes placed on the roster due to the trade. Even as Atlanta has addressed some of those issues, there are still some concerns on the roster mainly along the offensive line and depth in the secondary. Desmond Trufant could be breakout player this season at cornerback, but there’s little else that inspires hope in a secondary that ranked 28th against the pass by Adjusted NEP last season.
But of course the Falcons still have Jones, and they’re pretty happy about it -- at least happy enough to reward him with a contract extension over the weekend making him the second highest paid receiver in the NFL. Jones received a five-year deal worth a total of $71.256 million with $47 million guaranteed. Both figures eclipse the totals given to Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas this offseason and trail only Calvin Johnson's marks.
When we looked at which receivers should set the extension market earlier in the offseason, Jones ranked low among the group of four due mostly to health issues. Among the group that included Bryant, Thomas and A.J. Green, Jones ranked last in Total Reception NEP, Average Reception NEP and percentage of possible games played. He’s been great when he’s on the field -- he had the highest single season Reception NEP total of the four receivers and tied with Thomas for the second best average Reception NEP per target behind Bryant -- but only appearing in 76.5 percent of possible games hurts his value.
The Falcons are betting Jones can stay healthy from this point on, and if they hit on that bet, Jones will be well worth the financial investment. But if he can’t, the depth issues behind him could again become an issue. Roddy White just had his worst season by Reception NEP per target since 2006 and the depth chart behind those two includes Leonard Hankerson and rookie Justin Hardy.
Our projections also aren’t fans of the Falcons this season for those types of issues. Atlanta currently ranks 22nd in nERD, though they have a 42 percent chance of making the playoffs thanks to the NFC South.
Atlanta escaped the deal with the most talented player but have been digging themselves out of a hole they’re responsible for over the past few seasons. Jones has been a valuable piece of the Falcons when he’s on the field, but it’s going to take a stronger group of players around him for the value to reach the potential the front office originally envisioned.