A world where Julio Jones isn’t a Falcon

Prefeace: The most exciting Sunday in sports is almost here! The Super Bowl will be flashing in our screens with the promising matchup of the Atlanta Falcons taking on the New England Patriots. Whether you like either team or want to cheer for the commercials, there is something for every football fan in this game. This is the second of two Alternate Jerseys celebrating the Big Game as we look at some small changes that could have changed what teams will be playing this weekend.

For this issue, we’re looking to the 2011 draft, which was a pretty stacked draft. Cam Newton, Von Miller, A.J. Green, Patrick Peterson, J.J. Watt, along with many star players and Super Bowl participants have already come out of this draft. But this weekend, there is one in particular we want to set out sights on: Julio Jones.

The Atlanta Falcons held the 6th pick in the draft after a trade with Cleveland. Jones became an immediate staple of the Falcons offense and in 2016 led the league in receiving yards, and is a key reason the Falcons hold the title of #1 offense this year. Julio has been called uncoverable, impossible to defend one on one, and a freak of nature. It’d be hard to picture the Falcons’ Super Bowl run without him.

Well, one person in 2011 certainly tried to make it a reality: Patriots Coach Bill Belichick. Belichick advised his former student and Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff to not draft Julio Jones, as Belichick viewed him as too risky of a pick. Jones had a high ceiling, certainly, but Belichick worried about Julio’s ability to bring in the catch and get open. This is a notion that the entire NFC South probably wishes were true. Dimitroff dimi-scoffed at the notion, drafted the Alabama wideout anyway, and the Falcons are now one win away from bringing home their first Lombardi.

But what if Dimitroff took Belichick’s advice?

We’ll start with the obvious: if Dimitroff listens to his former mentor, the Falcons don’t trade into the 6th pick and the Browns still get to pick there. Leading up to the draft, there were a handful of teams that had their eyes on a potentially game-changing wide receiver, and what do you know — the Browns were one of them. The Browns were projected all across the board to take Jones if the Falcons didn’t pull the trigger on the trade. No Atlanta trade and Julio Jones joins the Dawg Pound, with Colt McCoy throwing him passes instead of Matt Ryan.

Bill Belichick no doubt snickers from his booth as he watches the Browns once again make a “foolish” high draft pick, which brings up the question of who the Falcons will take at pick 26 (yes, we’ll assume the Ravens still don’t make their pick in time and Atlanta jumps in front of them.) It’s tough to find a consensus pick for who the Falcons were looking at should they have stayed that low. DE was definitely a serious need after Aaron Rodgers and the Packers of Destiny tore their way through that defense, but more importantly since their DE with the most tackles only registered a paltry 35 tackles on the year.

With Atlanta needing to fill that spot in a major way, the Falcons decide to beat the Jets to the punch and draft Muhammed Wilkerson, leaving the Jets to take Cameron Heyward.

Moving onto the 2011 season, the absence of Julio Jones doesn’t cripple Atlanta, but it will change up a few things. Roddy White is still serving as the top target for Matt Ryan, pulling in nearly 1,300 yards on the season. Julio wasn’t too bad for a rookie, catching for over 950 yards and maintaining a crazy 17.8 yards per reception, and was a solid #2 in that offense. Without him, the next-best pure wide receiver the Falcons had to work with would be Harry Douglas. In other words, the Falcons did not have a lot of depth outside of White and Jones.

But, they do have Tony Gonzalez at tight end, who ends up seeing a little more work as White goes for a career-high 1,400 yards. Gonzalez will break 1,000 yards without Jones to distract Matty Ice. Without Jones, however, there is a serious deep threat eliminated in their passing game. That leaves the Falcons with 8 fewer touchdowns, including that 80-yarder Julio scored. In light of his absence, we’ll say the Falcons go 9-7 in the 2011 season.

Call me crazy, but the McCoy-Jones connection in Cleveland would be magic. McCoy’s strengths coming into the draft were his ability to read coverages and get the ball to a YAC-gobbling receiver. Where he was lacking was the deep ball. Julio, luckily for McCoy, is great at breaking away from defenders and and gobbling up YAC. He’s also a great deep threat, which over time will teach Colt to work on and be more confident in his deep ball.

Let’s talk logistics in their first season together: without Jones, the Browns’ #1 target was a 3rd round rookie named Greg Little, a player who wouldn’t be on Cleveland’s radar if they were able to draft Julio Jones. Jones had a pretty great rookie year in Atlanta, so we’ll assume he shoots up the chain of command as Cleveland’s #1 target pretty quick.

After going 0–3 under Seneca Wallace, Cleveland turns the reigns over the Longhorn McCoy and don’t look back. McCoy’s 2011 wasn’t the most amazing by any means as he learned to find his footing. 14 TDs, 11 INTs, and roughly 2,700 yards passing. Now let’s plug in Julio, who can undoubtedly make an okay quarterback at least look a little better. Cleveland picks up two more wins, Colt goes for six more touchdowns and 300 more yards, and the Browns finish with a 6–10 record.

2012 rolls around and there is going to be a position Cleveland isn’t in the market for: a quarterback. Colt McCoy does just well enough to keep (or at least compete for) the starting job. Thus, Brandon Weeden is no longer a 1st rounder. One thing they would be still be interested in, however, is helping Colt out at wide receiver. Julio turned out great, but without a #2, the team would be hurting.

So they’ll still take Josh Gordon in the supplemental draft. This also means that, for the second year in a row, Atlanta is NOT making a trade with Cleveland. Atlanta, after adjusting for our AJ reality, now holds pick number 20 with a pretty glaring hole at WR #2 themselves. This puts them right in front of the Titans, which lets the Falcons beat them to the punch in drafting Kendall Wright. The Titans scramble and pick up arguably a 2nd round caliber talent in Alshon Jeffery, somebody who fits their scheme at the time.

Gordon having to fill a #2 slot is an immediate humbler for the oft-troubled receiver. Having to serve in that roll opposite the pinnacle of sportsmanship, Julio Jones, is another added benefit for the Baylor boy. Jones has his breakout year in Cleveland, going for 1,200 yards while Gordon picks about 900. Colt McCoy starts to exude confidence as a starter, and the Browns go 8-8 thanks to a revitalized pass game.

Julio Jones is, of course, NOT exploding in Atlanta in 2012 which poses a problem for the Dirty Birds. Wright is nowhere near the vertical, defender-escaping wizard that Jones is, which gives Matt Ryan fewer weapons. White and Gonzalez are great again, but sans Jones, the Falcons don’t clinch the #1 seed, instead slipping to 11-5 after losing close battles against Denver and Carolina and making Kaep’s 49ers the #1 seed. Falcons snag the 3rd seed after just barely losing to Green Bay on strength of schedule. This won’t change the Super Bowl, it just gives the 49ers a faster route to losing to Baltimore in the Super Bowl.

Coming back to Cleveland for the 2013 season, the team is experiencing stability at quarterback with a pair of terrific receivers. Growth is on the horizon, and Josh Gordon’s record-breaking season is bubbling under the surface. Now Gordon will be needing to share those targets as Jones is still receiver numero uno in this scenario. Josh Gordon won’t be breaking the record, will be good for him. Jones and Gordon together though? They will be the scourge of the AFC North, especially since Jones won’t suffer his season-ending injury from playing in Atlanta.

After 3 years of improving, Colt McCoy’s accuracy has become almost laser-like as he stays injury free and finds new and creative ways to get the ball out. Throw in the rise of tight end Jordan Cameron and the Browns look nearly unstoppable on offense, at least when Trent Richardson doesn’t have the ball. The Browns don’t cycle through 3 quarterbacks (which also means Brian Hoyer never gets his 3 game winning streak that gave him the job in 2014), which means they’re able to get wins — and lots of them! Plugging in the would-be stats of these dynamite receivers and a halfway decent quarterback, the Browns have a whopping seven additional winnable games in their season.

That puts Cleveland at an 11–5 record AND the division title, forcing the Bengals to play as a wild card after winning the divisional record by a single game and pushing the Chargers out of the playoffs. 2013 for Atlanta is pretty simple to analyze without Jones, since he already spent most of the year out with an injury. Falcons still go 4–12.

Let’s talk about the AFC Playoffs with Cleveland in the picture. As a reminder, your seeds are now:

  1. Denver Broncos
  2. New England Patriots
  3. Indianapolis Colts
  4. Cleveland Browns
  5. Kansas City Chiefs
  6. Cincinnati Bengals

(Brief side note; seeds 3–6 all have 11–5 records. I did so much math to make this picture work. Like, wow.)

The Bengals meet yet another wild card round exit at the hands of Luck’s Colts, which is only sad in that we don’t get to see the biggest playoff comeback in NFL history anymore. However, we do get to see the Chiefs win a playoff game as Alex Smith still manages to rip apart the Browns defense, their blatant weakness. Luck lucks out and doesn’t have to take on Tom Brady, but instead faces off against the guy whose job he took in Peyton Manning. The Broncos, still touting the #1 offense, blow past the Colts. The Patriots face the Chiefs, and that’s just not a fair fight whatsoever at this point. Patriots go up to Mile High and we know how this song ends. Denver gets annihilated by the Seahawks in the Super Bowl.

“Why bring it up if nothing changed?” Well, Cleveland is a threat now. A real one. Especially after they use their two 1st round picks in 2014 to boost their defense. They still sadly take Justin Gilbert with their first pick after needing a corner, but their 22nd pick (that they earn this time instead of trading up for) gets used on Dee Ford to help out on their line. The two aren’t immediate impact players, but it does buy Cleveland a bit of time. Atlanta meanwhile finally addresses their wide receiver problem and takes Mike Evans with the 6th pick before he goes to Tampa. And since I know you’re ever so curious, Johnny Manziel gets passed by Minnesota, Houston, and Oakland, landing in the paws of Jerry Jones as the eventual replacement of Tony Romo.

This brings us to the 2016 season. Mike Evans turns out to be be just what the doctor ordered for Atlanta, as Matt Ryan’s historic year does not go to total waste. The Falcons aren’t quite “legendary #1 offense” good, but Evans and recent free agent grab Mohamed Sanu certainly help matters. They get a 10-6 record with a mediocre defense, but Atlanta’s time in the bottom while being wide receiverless does still allow for them to pick up Vic Beasley Jr.

The Browns are suddenly a force to be reckoned with. Colt McCoy becomes the Browns first franchise quarterback since returning to the league, Josh Gordon doesn’t get suspended, and a handful of early playoff exits allows them to pick up some needed defensive talent such as Shaq Thompson, Darren Lee, and actually picking up Myles Jack in the 1st. In addition, since the Browns don’t hold the #2 pick in the 2016 draft, the Eagles can’t make a deal with them to get the #2 pick.

That honor goes to San Diego, who still take Joey Bosa. The Cowboys take Ezekiel Elliott at #3, and so on and so forth. The Eagles can’t strike a deal with any other team, Wentz will land in San Francisco, to give the 49ers a 3rd quarterback to look at, leaving the Eagles to settle for Paxton Lynch at pick 13. Oh, and Dak Prescott isn’t drafted by Dallas because they’ve been grooming Johnny Manziel the last few years to take over for Romo, which he’s gonna have to do in 2016. The Dak attack is instead landing in Kansas City, in the 5th round! You can bet he won’t be seeing any game time.

In addition, RG3 still walks away from Washington, but Cleveland isn’t looking for a promising veteran anymore. But you know who is? Denver! The Broncos pick up the oft maligned product, bump him into the starting role, and he suffers an injury early in the season that forces Denver to start Trevor Siemian.

But we’re not here to talk about other quarterbacks. This is the year of the Browns! After hiring a shiny new defensive coordinator in the offseason, developing a strong air game, and adding some talent to the running position little by little, the Browns take full advantage of an historically weak AFC North with only the Steelers as their potential threat. This universe’s Browns pick up wins against the Eagles, Ravens twice, Dolphins, Titans, Bengals twice, Jets, Dak-less Cowboys, , Steelers, and the Chargers bringing not just one win but 11 wins and the division title by just a smidge over the Steelers. Don’t worry, the Steelers still make the playoffs, but at the cost of pushing Miami out now that they have one fewer win against the Brownies.

Manziel performs alright for Dallas, but he’s not the accurate passer that Prescott is even with the time spent cooking under Romo. Johnny leads the team to a respectable 9-7 record and Ezekiel Elliott still has his crazy rookie year. That 9-7 record is sadly not enough to make the playoffs as they are handed four extra losses by the Redskins twice, the Eagles, and the aforementioned Browns, paving the way for Washington and Detroit to take the 5 and 6 seeds.

Your NFL Playoffs for 2016 could have looked like this:

AFC
  1. New England Patriots
  2. Kansas City Chiefs
  3. Cleveland Browns
  4. Houston Texans
  5. Oakland Raiders
  6. Pittsburgh Steelers
NFC
  1. New York Giants
  2. Seattle Seahawks
  3. Atlanta Falcons
  4. Green Bay Packers
  5. Washington Redskins
  6. Detroit Lions

On the AFC side, the Steelers and Browns get a rematch to settle their season record against each other. Julio Jones absolutely explodes against Pittsburgh, and the Browns snag their first playoff win since 1994. We already know how the Oakland v Houston game ends, so we’ll move straight to the divisional round. The Browns, currently better than Pittsburgh, actually manage to score touchdowns on the Chiefs and advance to their first AFC Championship since…well, what do you know, 1994.

The Patriots still beat the Texans and go on to face Belichick’s old team in Foxborough.  Now that I’ve spent all this time hyping up Cleveland’s rise to relevance, it’s time for a swift kick in the jaw: Cleveland, even with their new high-octane offense, doesn’t beat the 2016 Patriots at home. Cleveland’s weak point remains a young and talented, but ultimately inexperienced, defense as Tom Brady storms his way to his 7th Super Bowl.

In the NFC, Atlanta is able to handle the comeback kid Matt Stafford and go on to face Seattle in the divisional round. Green Bay gets a sizeable home field advantage taking on Washington in Lambeau and go on to face the #1 New York Giants in the Meadowlands. Now, adapting for all the recent changes in Atlanta and considering they don’t get home field advantage against Seattle, plugging these things into our simulator point towards another win for the Seahawks.

Next up on the Packers’ table are the #1 seeded Giants at home with plenty of time to recover from the infamous boat trip and facing off against one of the weaker secondaries in the league. Giants take this one and host the Seahawks on their own turf for all the NFC marbles. After running simulation after simulation, I can now officially declare that the NFC Champions of this particular alternate universe are once again the New York Giants. And we all know how that song and dance goes.

The trade for Julio Jones set the cogs in motions for Atlanta’s brilliant 2016. Remember, had this never have happened, the entire face of the NFL could look vastly different, and you could be watching the 3rd installment of Eli V Brady.