Kyle Shanahan's love for Julio Jones is well-documented. So, when the star receiver hit the trade market, many expected the 49ers to be a major player in the sweepstakes.
Shanahan and general manager John Lynch, however, showed great restraint, knowing that acquiring Jones would make their future cap crunch even tighter. The Atlanta Falcons eventually traded Jones and a 2023 sixth-round draft pick to the Tennessee Titans for a 2022 second-round pick and a 2023 fourth-round pick.
Shanahan and the 49ers were happy to see the 32-year-old receiver land in the AFC. But the 49ers coach admits that had the division-rival Los Angeles Rams been in the driver's seat to land Jones, the 49ers would have been more aggressive in order to keep him away from Sean McVay.
“That’s [was] our biggest fear in Julio, is that Sean’s going to go for him,” Shanahan said on the latest episode of The Ringer's "Flying Coach" podcast with McVay and Peter Schrager. “My first choice is, 'Man, I just wish Julio would go to the AFC, but if he’s going to the NFC West, we’ve got to make sure we get him,' because it almost ends up being an arms race. I know the job Sean does. I know how good of a job Pete [Carroll] does. I know how good of a job Kliff [Kingsbury] does. And everyone’s got quarterbacks.
"That’s actually the most frustrating thing for me. I always say, ‘Let’s do it the right way,’ which, there’s no right way or wrong way, but you don’t want to have to risk your future to compete in one year. And that’s the hardest thing about being in our division because I know how Sean rolls. That’s very similar to me. And I can see that in the two other guys (Caroll and Kingsbury) in our division.
"Julio would have helped everybody, but you know what it’s doing to your organization for that year and the years to come. That’s a really risky thing, but man, if Sean’s getting him, I’m going to risk that. I know that’s how he thinks. That’s how we all think because you’ve got to compete with your division first."
There were initial rumors that both the Rams and Seattle Seahawks were interested in acquiring Jones, and Arizona Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins said he would restructure his contract to bring Jones to the desert.
The idea of adding Jones to an offense that already has George Kittle, Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk undoubtedly was a tantalizing option for Shanahan. But the 49ers need to preserve their cap space for future extensions for Fred Warner, Nick Bosa and Samuel.
After Jones was traded to the Titans, Shanahan explained why the 49ers weren't involved.
"Yeah, I mean, I think the simple, like you said, no one in the world doesn't want a guy like that," Shanahan said. "I mean everyone knows the player he is. But it's not as simple as that. You’ve got to build a team and it's not just year to year, you've got to build it for the future. And, you know, you just think about how hard it is going into drafts. You know, you never know what you're going to be able to do in free agency, who you're going to lose, who you're going to be able to bring in. You've got lots of guys on one-year contracts, things like that.
"Everyone knows we don't have a first-round pick," Shanahan continued. "But what happens when you don't have a second-round pick and a fourth-round pick and you lose the number of guys in free agency, which you never can for sure count on? And then you end up going into a draft and you’ve got to get six new spots, but all you have is a third and a fifth-round pick.
"It's kind of tough to build your team that way and to consistently do it. But he's a hell of a player and he's going to definitely help Tennessee. And everyone knows how special he is, but it's, you’ve got to think about the short-term and the long-term and that's why those things are so risky for everybody.”
It's a risk Shanahan would have taken to keep Jones away from one of his NFC West rivals, but one, in the end, he didn't need to take.