The 49ers' starting wide receivers are set with Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk.
Beyond those two, there are questions about which players will fit into which roles.
There is no clear order among the group behind Samuel and Aiyuk. The others who are competing for roles are Richie James, Travis Benjamin, Trent Sherfield, Jalen Hurd, Mohamed Sanu, River Cracraft, Jauan Jennings, Kevin White, Austin Watkins Jr and recently-signed Bennie Fowler.
But there is one player who seemingly is available and would end all debate about the 49ers’ top three wideouts: Jones, Julio.
Shanahan was Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator for two seasons and had the luxury of designing plays for quarterback Matt Ryan to get the ball to Jones. That experience had a lasting impact on Shanahan.
“If there's a Julio Jones available and you have the opportunity to get him, you go get him,” Shanahan said leading up to the 2018 draft. “It's worth it. Whatever the price is, whatever the draft pick is, go get him.”
Here we are, three years later, and Julio Jones could very well be playing for a different team in 2021.
First-year Atlanta Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot confirmed last month he would entertain offers for Jones, and the debate reached a fever pitch Monday after Jones told FOX Sports' Shannon Sharpe on live TV he's "out of there" in referencing Atlanta.
NFL Media's Ian Rapoport later reported that Jones requested a trade earlier this offseason.
Jones has made the NFC Pro Bowl team in seven of his 10 NFL seasons. He played 14 or more games for six straight seasons from 2014 to ’19. His worst production during that stretch came in 2019 when he caught 99 passes for 1,394 yards and six touchdowns.
Last season, Jones played hurt — when he played at all. He sustained a hamstring injury in Week 2. He suited up for nine games, and he still managed to catch 51 passes for 771 yards and three touchdowns.
When Ryan spoke last week with the Atlanta-area media, he was asked about Jones, who faces an uncertain future with the Falcons.
“He’s probably impacted my career more significantly than any other player,” Ryan said.
In order for the 49ers to go down Jones Road, Shanahan and general manager John Lynch would have to believe Jones can have a similar impact on the back end of his career on rookie quarterback Trey Lance.
The 49ers traded away their first-round picks in 2022 and ’23, as well as a third-round pick in 2022, to move up nine spots to No. 3 in order to be in a position to choose their quarterback of the future.
Does it serve the best long-term interest of the 49ers to part ways with another quality future draft pick and pay the big cost of Jones’ contract?
The 49ers have approximately $18 million in salary cap space, sure. But Jones has a scheduled 2021 salary of $15.3 million that would have to be shoe-horned into the 49ers’ financial ledger.
Jones is signed for three seasons. He is set to earn $11.513 million in 2022 and ’23.
Because unused cap money carries over from one year to the next, every dollar the 49ers would spend on Jones is a dollar that is not available to go toward potential multi-year contracts for other players.
Linebacker Fred Warner is due for a new, lucrative deal before training camp. The 49ers, potentially, will have to provide a big contract for defensive end Nick Bosa in the near future. Right tackle Mike McGlinchey and Samuel are also coming up on new deals.
Plus, the list of 49ers whose contracts are set to expire after this season includes running back Raheem Mostert, guard Laken Tomlinson, defensive lineman D.J. Jones, and defensive backs Jason Verrett, K’Waun Williams and Jaquiski Tartt.
The 49ers made a commitment this offseason to fullback Kyle Juszczyk, signing him to a five-year, $27 million contract. The 49ers deploy two-back sets more than any team in the league.
If the 49ers were to acquire Jones, they would almost have to pivot toward being reliant on three-receiver sets. After all, it would make little sense to ever have Jones, Samuel or Aiyuk playing fewer than 70 percent of the team’s offensive snaps.
But, let’s face it, the challenge of finding enough playing time for the fullback would be a nice problem for Shanahan and offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel.
Shanahan said it himself: If Julio Jones is available, you go get him.
The question is whether Jones at 32 years old is still worth the high cost of doing business.