For the first time in over a decade, Atlanta's wide receiver corps appeared to have quality depth. Signing Leonard Hankerson and drafting Justin Hardy were excellent low-risk moves for team that featured Julio Jones, Roddy White, and not much else. These moves convinced several writers, including myself, that wide receiver was the strongest position on the roster.
Instead of being the strongest position, it may be one of the weakest on this roster. Nobody expected Roddy White to become a complete afterthought. Hankerson hasn't quite lived up to lofty expectations from the summer. Devin Hester has been hampered by a toe injury, while Hardy has finally grasped the playbook halfway through the season. Nobody expected the wide receiver position to be such an issue, but it has been.
The only knock on Jones has been his durability. While a hamstring issue has hampered him, he has managed to contribute in every game this season. Jones has essentially been the entire passing game at times. Kyle Shanahan has utilized him across the field, which has created even more problems for opposing defenses trying to consistently double team him. Bill Barnwell wrote an excellent piece about the Jones takeover that everyone should read or have read by now. It has become virtually impossible to stop him. Containing him by not allowing any 20-yard catches seems to be the only realistic proposition.
Jones has become the lone lifeline in Atlanta's dink-and-dunk offense. His three catches that went over 35 yards or more played a pivotal role in Atlanta's 3-0 start. From roasting Byron Maxwell and Prince Amukamara to practically taking over Cowboy Stadium, it's hard to choose a non-quarterback over him for offensive player of the year. Jones has been absolutely sensational this season. A+
According to Pro Football Focus, Hankerson has dropped seven passes out of 37 targets. That is an alarming rate for a player that was supposedly the star of training camp. Hankerson has still become an asset, but injuries and below-average hands continue to derail his career. The crisp route-runner made several big plays during the first quarter of the season. After dropping two passes against New Orleans and suffering from a hamstring injury against Tennessee, the offense has sputtered in his absence.
His impact still can't be discounted, as Atlanta wouldn't have beaten the Giants without him. Hankerson contributed six catches for 77 yards, which includes four catches on third down. Ryan continuously went to him during their furious fourth quarter comeback. Unfortunately, he doesn't seem capable of being a dependable number two receiver. The former Miami Hurricane has still shown enough promise to be re-signed. A strong second half to the season would do wonders for his stock. Besides Jones, no wide receiver on the roster can excel in the red zone or create separation like Hankerson. That's what makes his drops somewhat tolerable. C+
Nobody could have predicted such a demoralizing decline for the four time Pro Bowler. It has become somewhat reminiscent of Reggie Wayne's late career slide, as injuries and hits have simply caught up to him. White can't explode off the line of scrimmage nor run excellent routes to create separation anymore. Besides Brandon Browner, White hasn't had much success against opposing cornerbacks. Ryan has missed some opportunities to get him involved, however, and the franchise quarterback has become too reliant of Jones and Jacob Tamme over the past month.
Even so, Ryan's passer rating is at 59.2 on throws to White, according to Pro Football Focus. A productive wide receiver doesn't get his first target in the last minute of the third quarter, when an offense is clearly struggling against the 28th ranked San Francisco defense. Criticizing Shanahan's play calling shouldn't fully erase White's lack of production. An offense that has averaged 16.8 points per game over the past five games is searching for any type of solution. White simply hasn't stepped up in Hankerson's absence. If they can reduce his snaps from 55 to 35, that should be beneficial for all parties in this situation. White is a role player at this point and needs to be utilized within that role. His grade gets a slight boost for being the best-run blocking wide receiver on the team. D+
The scrappy wide receiver deserves major credit for defying the odds. Most people viewed his emergence as nothing more than a nice pre-season story. Nobody would have predicted to see Williams over Hardy on the depth chart to start the season. His precise route running has benefitted him during one-on-one situations, despite a lack of size and athleticism.
A key third down catch against Dallas was arguably the biggest play of his young career. He beat first-round pick Byron Jones on a quick route that helped Atlanta's incredible second-half comeback. Williams has obvious limitations that will keep him as another possession receiver. On a roster featuring multiple possession receivers, his outlook doesn't look very promising. He hasn't made enough plays to earn 30-35 reps on a weekly basis. D
Justin Hardy and Devin Hester won't receive grades. Hardy has only played two games, while Hester won't play his first game until Week 13. It would be harsh to rate Hardy following a difficult transition to the NFL. Learning the playbook can be difficult for a wide receiver coming from a small school. He should continue to grow into a bigger role within the offense.