According to ESPN’s Bill Barnwell (subscription), he projects that the Indianapolis Colts will sign veteran free agent wide receiver Julio Jones among his ‘Top 10 remaining NFL free agent signings’:
WR Julio Jones to the Indianapolis Colts
There has been virtually no chatter around the longtime Falcons standout, who just limped through an injury-riddled disaster of a season with the Titans. Just three years removed from leading the NFL in receiving yards, the 33-year-old Jones was a salary-cap casualty in Tennessee, with GM Jon Robinson & Co. moving on after one year despite trading a second-round pick for Jones last summer.
Jones was still playing like a star in 2019 and was productive when healthy in 2020, so I think it’s a little too early to suggest that his career as a useful wideout is over. Jones averaged 2.7 yards per route run in 2020, which ranked right in line with stars like Stefon Diggs and DeAndre Hopkins, albeit over only a half-season of work. Jones has primarily been an outside receiver during his career, but I wonder if a team might be able to extend his NFL run by moving him inside more frequently, as the Cardinals did with Larry Fitzgerald in his 30s.
A deal with the Colts would give Jones a chance to spend time both on the outside and in the slot, given that Parris Campbell has struggled to stay healthy and second-round pick Alec Pierce may need some time to adjust to the league. It would also get Jones back inside a dome for his home games and reunite the seven-time Pro Bowler with his longtime quarterback, Matt Ryan.
Colts general manager Chris Ballard has been hesitant at times to make free-agent signings outside of the organization, but his new quarterback should be able to vouch for Jones. Again, a one-year deal in the $5 million to $6 million range would make sense.
To his point, the Colts look like a team that could use a veteran presence and soundboard in their young receiving room—whether it’s re-signing longtime franchise great T.Y. Hilton (32) or electing to go with Jones (33) instead. Either experienced voice could provide a mentor to some of their younger wideouts such as Michael Pittman Jr. and Alec Pierce, in addition to the offseason addition of beloved new wide receivers coach Reggie Wayne.
Jones makes some sense given his great familiarity with veteran starting quarterback Matt Ryan from their time together with the Atlanta Falcons (2011-20)—as consistently one of the league’s most prolific quarterback to wide receiver combinations.
Unlike Hilton too, he’s a big bodied wideout at a listed 6’3”, 220 pounds, who can add another skyscraper to an imposing Colts’ receiver skyline that already includes Pittman Jr. (6’4”, 223 pounds) and Pierce (6’3”, 211 pounds)—while providing physical blocking on the perimeter for Indy running back Jonathan Taylor and an elite ground game.
Jones is a player who needs no introduction either, as a 5x NFL All-Pro and 7x Pro Bowler, who ranks all-time in league history: 25th in receptions (879), 17th in receiving yards (13,330), and 85th in touchdown receptions (61).
That being said, he’s now 33 years old as mentioned and has been limited by injuries the past few seasons (with 14 total missed games from 2020-21)—having failed to eclipse 800 total receiving yards in either of those past two campaigns while combining for just 4 touchdown receptions during that same span.
Jones is coming off a fairly pedestrian sole season with the Tennessee Titans, in which he caught 31 receptions for 434 receiving yards and a touchdown reception during 10 starts—before being unceremoniously released earlier this offseason.
In the twilight of his playing career, there runs some risk that Jones is ‘running on fumes’, much like former Houston Texans wideout great Andre Johnson (then 34) was when he signed with the Colts back in 2015 and lasted just a lone season in Indianapolis before being waived.
If expectations are tempered though and the cost is fairly minimal, Jones at least makes some sense as a veteran wideout who can push Pierce for a starting job on the other side of Pittman Jr. and provide depth for either player—serving as insurance in the process, and potentially, maybe even a dynamic slot option for Ryan.
Those two could re-spark a familiar, yet collectively old flame for the Colts.