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Julio Jones trade reportedly likely to happen before Week 1

Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones will likely be playing for a new team when the 2021 NFL season kicks off. The All-Pro weapon, who signed a lucrative extension with the franchise in 2019, might be the biggest star traded in the next few months.

When the Falcons hired general manager Terry Fontenot this offseason, he walked into a difficult situation. Due to a series of expensive contracts given out by the old regime, Atlanta faced one of the NFL’s worst salary-cap crunches. It took weeks, with restructured contracts pushing the financial issues down the line, just for the Falcons to get under the 2021 NFL salary cap.

But with the NFL Draft in the books, Fontenot’s club doesn’t have the cap room to sign its rookie class. With few other alternatives, the franchise is considering offers for Jones and a deal might come sooner than later.

Related: Falcons could still make Julio Jones trade this offseason

NFL insider Peter King believes there’s a 60% chance Jones is traded by Labor Day, clearing the way for him to suit up in a different uniform by Week 1.

Labor Day, Sept. 6, is just a few days before the NFL Kickoff Game on Sept. 9 when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers take the field. On Sept. 10, 28 other NFL teams will be playing their first game of the 2021 season.

Why the Falcons must trade Julio Jones

The Falcons currently have $600,000 in cap space, per Over The Cap, not nearly enough to sign their top picks from the 2021 NFL Draft. As a result, one of the most beloved figures in the city and the star of Atlanta’s offense will likely need to be traded.

Related: What the Atlanta Falcons’ decision on Calvin Ridley means for Julio Jones trade

Fontenot didn’t trade Jones during the NFL Draft for a reason. If the front office waits until after June 1 to make a deal official, it creates more than $15 million in cap space. Not only would that allow the franchise to sign its rookies, but the remaining funds could be saved and moved into 2022.

We’ve already seen signs of this team preparing to move on. The Falcons could have drafted Justin Fields with the No. 4 pick, landing a franchise-caliber quarterback who grew up in Georgia. Instead, Atlanta drafted Kyle Pitts to provide Matt Ryan with another potential All-Pro weapon.

Read More: Julio Jones trade increasingly likely this offseason, 3 potential landing spots

It’s also important to think about Calvin Ridley. He proved he could be a No. 1 wide receiver this past season, stepping up when Jones was sidelined by a hamstring injury. With Ridley due for a contract extension next spring, trading Jones would help create more money to spend on the new focal point of the offense.

Even with Jones, the Falcons project to finish near the bottom of the NFL standings in 2021. If they can free up cap space and land a 2022 second-round pick for the All-Pro receiver, it’s a move that needs to be made.