Falcons had right idea in trading for Jones

Posted Feb. 20, 2012 @ 1:09 p.m.
Posted By Mike Wilkening

This was going to be a column urging clubs to be bold in restricted free agency, to make Steelers WR Mike Wallace and Texans RB Arian Foster offers that their current clubs would struggle to match. Easy for me to write, right? Not. My. Money.

If ever there was a year for a team to consider taking a big swing in restricted free agency, this is it.

Foster and Wallace are among the most talented restricted free agents ever. Yes, I said ever. They are blue-chip players just entering the prime of their careers. Each turns 26 in August. Neither comes with health concerns.

Teams with plenty of salary-cap space and either 1) multiple first-round picks or 2) a first-round selection in the back half of Round One should ponder the possibility of making an offer to either player. I am not the first person to suggest that Wallace could be just what the Patriots' offense needs, and I will not be the last. And if I were Bengals owner Mike Brown, I would be getting longtime RB coach Jim Anderson's scouting report on Foster, who might be the game's most versatile back.

The downside on making an offer to Foster or Wallace? It will be expensive, both in terms of dollars (eight figures, easy) and draft picks (at least one first-rounder, assuming each player is given the highest RFA tender).

The price of sitting at this poker table soars should either player receive the non-exclusive franchise tag. In that case, it will take a major financial commitment PLUS two first-round picks to sign Wallace or Foster. (The exclusive franchise tag would forbid them from negotiating with other clubs completely.)

Opening the wallet in restricted free agency has paid off for some teams over the years. The Jets surely never regretted acquiring RFA RB Curtis Martin from New England for a first- and a third-round selection in 1996. Likewise, the Patriots were happy to give up a second- and a seventh-round pick for RFA Dolphins WR Wes Welker in '07.

The cost of acquiring a big-ticket restricted free agent is high, but that's part of the deal, and should the player become a difference maker, no one's going to sweat the receipt.

Of course, when an aggressive, high-cost move doesn't pan out, the tab is tough to take, and the criticism bubbles and flows.

Some will suggest Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff blew it last April when he traded first-, second- and fourth-round picks in 2011, as well as first- and fourth-round selections in 2012, to move up to take WR Julio Jones. The Falcons didn't even win a playoff game this past season, after all, and their first-round pick now belongs to Cleveland.

But let's suppose the Falcons didn't make the trade for Jones. It is likely they still would be looking for a wideout to complement Roddy White. Perhaps they would have considered addressing the position in free agency, or with the No. 22 pick that now belongs to Cleveland.

Instead, they have Jones, who showed tremendous promise as a rookie, under contract for three more seasons, with a team option for 2015. Despite missing three games with a hamstring injury, Jones hauled in 54 passes for 959 yards and eight touchdowns. Just 23 years old, Jones is a Pro Bowl-caliber talent.

Whom would you rather have? Jones, whom the Falcons signed to a four-year, $16.18 million contract, including a $10.27 million signing bonus, or Wallace, who figures to draw a far more lucrative offer if he's allowed to negotiate with other clubs?

All things considered, there's a strong case for Jones at that price, right?

This is to take nothing away from Wallace, who's swift, hardworking and well-rounded. He is more accomplished than Jones. The Steelers would be wise to sign to a long-term deal. If they do not, another club surely will jump at the chance, and it could be an offense-altering move for that team.

The Falcons took their big swing last April. My goodness, did it seem like they gave up a lot for Julio Jones.

But how much was it, really, when considering the cost of doing business in free agency?