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Atlanta Falcons v Green Bay Packers Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Can the Packers afford Julio Jones?

If Green Bay were to work out a deal for the embattled Falcons wideout, the team could fit Jones into the team’s 2021 cap situation by restructuring his deal and extending one of its veteran stars.

Can the Green Bay Packers afford to trade for disgruntled Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones? It’s a fair question, as the NFL’s complicated cap system makes fans question what is possible within its structure. (Rule #1: It’s always a great model to confuse the fans.) The truth of the matter is that the Packers 1) can absolutely trade for Jones and 2) it is not a trade that could happen in isolation.

We’ll start with today’s date: June 1st. June 1st ushers in a new phase in the NFL offseason, a bit of a transition phase in cap accounting between the 2021 and 2022 seasons. From this day forward, the possibility of Jones being traded becomes more likely for one reason: cap accounting.

June 1st and cap accounting

Below is the structure of Jones’ current contract with the Falcons, which has three major factors: salary, signing bonus and option bonus. (All numbers below are in millions.)

Julio Jones’ Current Contract

Year Base Salary Signing Bonus Option Bonus Cap Hit
Year Base Salary Signing Bonus Option Bonus Cap Hit
2021 $15.30 $5.00 $2.75 $23.05
2022 $11.51 $5.00 $2.75 $19.26
2023 $11.51 $5.00 $2.75 $19.26

His salary is the game checks he would receive, paid out in-season on a weekly basis by whichever team he’s playing for on Sundays. That’s the easy part.

The contract calculations that become convoluted in the NFL all surround bonuses, which are prorated over the lifetime of a contract (up to five years), despite the money already being paid. For example, Jones was paid a $25 million signing bonus in 2019, but instead of counting all $25 million of those dollars on the 2019 cap, the Falcons have to prorate that $25 million in $5 million increments over five years. The same is being done to a $11 million option bonus that was paid to Jones in March of 2020.

Why does this matter? Well, first, it explains the extra $7.25 million in cap hits that Jones is slated to make with the Falcons over the next three years, beyond just his salary. Second, and potentially more important to Green Bay Packers fans, is that the “dead cap” changes wildly if a player is released or traded post-June 1st.

Had the Falcons traded Jones prior to June 1st, they would have had to immediately account for the remaining unaccounted, but already paid, bonus money in Jones’ deal in their 2021 cap calculations. That means they would have had to allocate $23.25 million of their 2021 cap to money they had already paid to Jones as he walked out the door, more than his cap hit to play in Atlanta this year.

Post-June 1st, though, the NFL allows franchises to split dead cap between the current season and next season, locking in the current season’s bonus accounting and allowing teams to wait a year before the rest accelerates. In the Jones example, a post-June 1st trade of Jones would mean the Falcons would only have to account for $7.75 million of Jones’ remaining bonuses in 2021, saving $15.3 million in cap space immediately, with a $15.5 million dead cap coming in 2022 to tie an end to the accounting of Jones’ money made in Atlanta.

There are benefits to pre-June 1st and post-June 1st trades, relative to where franchises are financially. With that being said, the Falcons always had a high incentive to post-June 1st trade Jones as they have just $1.6 million in cap space currently for their top-51, which is who counts against the cap in the NFL offseason.

Spotrac’s cap estimation for Atlanta’s top-53 players, which does not include rookie draft pick contracts yet, puts the Falcons just under the 2021 salary cap by $11,125. In short: Atlanta is in a position where they need to clear cap space and eating a $23.25 million dead cap to pre-June 1st trade Julio Jones to not play for them looks a lot worse on paper than post-June 1st trading Jones and saving $15.3 million in 2021 cap space when they’re struggling to keep together their roster.

Potential for a Julio Jones restructure

Below would be the contract that would be assumed by any team that would trade for Jones, after the Falcons post-June 1st trade the receiver and assume his prorated bonus money on their 2021 and 2022 caps.

Julio Jones’ Contract Post-Trade

Year Base Salary Signing Bonus Option Bonus Cap Hit
Year Base Salary Signing Bonus Option Bonus Cap Hit
2021 $15.30 $0.00 $0.00 $15.30
2022 $11.51 $0.00 $0.00 $11.51
2023 $11.51 $0.00 $0.00 $11.51

But how can the Green Bay Packers afford to pay Jones a $15.3 million cap hit when their top-51 cap space is only at $5.59 million this year? Cap manipulation through converting the bulk of his salary into a signing bonus.

This may seem something close to cheating, dishonesty or against the rules, but it actually happens all the time in the NFL. In fact, the Packers just converted the bulk of two players’ salaries into a signing bonus this offseason already: defensive end Dean Lowry and outside linebacker Preston Smith.

According to the newest NFL collective bargaining agreement, the minimum salary for a player with 10 or more years of service, which Jones has, is $1.05 million. In theory, the Packers could convert the rest of his 2021 salary into a new signing bonus, as they have done with others earlier in the offseason, to lower his 2021 dead cap.

Here is what Jones’ contract would look like if you paid him the veteran minimum in salary and converted the rest of his 2021 salary into a signing bonus, an approach that would not be shocking in the Packers’ circumstance. Mind you, this would pay Jones the exact same amount as his $15.3 million 2021 salary, but would just account for it on the cap in a different way.

Post-Trade Restructure

Year Base Salary New Signing Bonus Cap Hit
Year Base Salary New Signing Bonus Cap Hit
2021 $1.05 $4.75 $5.80
2022 $11.51 $4.75 $16.26
2023 $11.51 $4.75 $16.26

Yes, you’re reading that right. The current league structure would allow a team to only account for $5.8 million in 2021 cap space for rostering Julio Jones, if the team converted his salary into a new signing bonus, despite paying him his scheduled money on his three-year, $66 million extension.

Green Bay’s other cap-clearing options

While a $5.8 million cap hit is more palatable than a $15.3 million cap hit, it would still put the Packers over the top-51 cap this offseason. Green Bay would need to make at least one more move to be able to get a Jones trade-and-restructure done, but they have options on the table. Their most likely answer to this problem would be to give a quality player they want to extend a new contract, turn his slated 2021 salary into a signing bonus and lower the player’s 2021 cap number while also locking him up long term.

Possible options would be wide receiver Davante Adams (2022 free agent, $16.76 million 2021 cap hit), outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith (2023, $14.62 million) and *cough* quarterback Aaron Rodgers (2024, $37.2 million).

All contract figures come from Spotrac.

Editor’s note: Please welcome Justis Mosqueda to the Acme Packing Company writing team! Justis has extensive experience writing about the NFL and the Packers on Bleacher Report and various other outlets.

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