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Looking back at roster moves: killing the depth at WR

"You always want to have that next wave" - Thomas Dimitroff. Easier said than done.

Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

We started with two of Thomas Dimitroff's better moves here.  Today we're looking at two (including one that stretches continuously for half a decade) that he probably wishes he could have back.

Upon arriving in Atlanta in 2008, our new braintrust (Dimitroff and incoming head coach Mike Smith) evaluated the players within the organization, assessed the team's assets and needs, and formulated their plan of attack.

At WR, they immediately dropped a few fringe prospects and then drafted Harry Douglas in April. As Dimitroff explained it in 2009, their vision was to have two "talls" on the outsides (Michael Jenkins and Roddy White) with a smaller, shifty Wes Welker-type receiver in the slot.  Veteran Joe Horn didn't make it past the final roster cuts, though Brian Finneran was able to make it after recovering from two major knee surgeries in two years.

So the team ended its first preseason under the new staff with Roddy White and Michael Jenkins on the outsides, Harry as the new slot man, deep threat Laurent Robinson and Finneran for depth, and Adam Jennings as a return man and developing WR prospect.   Another noteworthy prospect:  Eric Weems had been on the 2007 practice squad and was retained, earning a practice squad berth again in 2008.

It went downhill from there, though the damage wasn't too bad specifically that season.  Laurent Robinson sprained his knee early, rushed back and hurt his hamstring, landing on IR.  An officiating error on a called muffed punt return was the end of the line for Adam Jennings.  (It took a week, and we lost a defensive prospect in the interim, but Weems ultimately replaced Jennings on the roster for the remainder of the season.)

Mistakes add up

The first real mistake at WR came the following offseason.  The Falcons decided that Laurent Robinson no longer fit their plans, so they traded him for peanuts -  and didn't replace him.

A key clarification:   if a roster move or drafted player doesn't pan out, it isn't necessarily a mistake.  Sure, we drafted guys that first year who ultimately didn't make it, such as Wilrey Fontenot, Thomas Brown, or Keith Zinger.  That happens.

For a move to be a true mistake, there has to be another reason why it was dead wrong based on what is known at the time.

(A classic Falcons example from the Ken Herock era:  if you draft a convicted cocaine dealer who is awaiting sentencing, yeah, that's a true mistake.  The guy isn't going to score very many touchdowns from a prison cell.)

In Robinson's case, the problem wasn't that they decided to move on without him.  If a player doesn't fit the new coaching staff's plans, so be it.  The meager trade wasn't a problem either - if you're planning on releasing the guy, then anything you can get at all from trading him is a bonus.  The Falcons moved up with two late round picks.  It's insignificant, but it's still better than simply cutting him.  If that's the best they could get in trade, fine.

The critical mistake was that the team got rid of yet another player *without replacing him*.

Byt that point the new regime had added Harry but had dropped Horn, Jennings, and now Robinson.  Instead of adding depth to the roster, the Falcons were quickly eroding their WR corps.  They hadn't signed a receiver in free agency before trading Robinson.  And a few weeks later, they also failed to replace him in the draft.  It was the first time since 1997 that the team had not drafted at least one wideout.

Naturally, the reduced depth came back to haunt the Falcons.  The big blow came on a Wednesday afternoon with approximately 1200 fans watching practice from the hillside.  Harry Douglas was running a route along the left sideline, directly in front of the crowd, when he suddenly went to the ground clutching at his knee.  Everyone knew it was bad.  Brian Finneran did his best to console Douglas as he was taken off the field.

Douglas wasn't the only loss.  Finneran went on to miss six games that season himself, once again ending the year on IR.

The team recycled aging free agent Marty Booker as Harry's replacement.  Booker had nothing left in the tank.  They also signed retread free agent Robert Ferguson, but he couldn't even make the roster.  That year's crop of undrafted rookies didn't pan out, and they simply didn't have anyone else besides Weems in the pipeline.  They reached the point that they had to call up a former Arena League player (Troy Bergeron) from the practice squad several times throughout the season for emergency depth.

It keeps going

Trading Robinson without replacing him was the first, specific mistake. The ongoing, even larger mistake was that the team continued to go without even making a serious attempt to re-establish the depth in the WR group for another four years.

They did draft Kerry Meier in 2010, though his career was derailed by injuries.  And they selected a receiver in 2011 -  Quintorris somebody or other.

But Finneran was not resigned for 2011, Michael Jenkins was released as a cap casualty of the new CBA, Weems was not resigned for 2012, and no free agent receivers were added in either season.  When Kerry Meier was injured in preseason, the receiving corps was even more thin for 2012 than it had been in 2009.

Even worse, the team had brought in a new offensive coordinator who wanted to play a "four vertical" attack.  Quality receiver depth is a critical element -  but we forced him to round out the receiving corps with a pair of practice squad players.

And it continued.  Meier was released a few days before the 2013 draft.  The team still hadn't signed a free agent receiver, and once again no receiver was drafted to replace him.  Once again the Falcons were inviting disaster, and once again disaster accepted the invitation.  Roddy White suffered a high ankle sprain in preseason, and Julio was lost for the year after just five games.

The team then tried to resuscitate the career of Browns / Jaguars / Lions flop Brian Robiskie, figuring that having his own father as position coach might turn him around.  It didn't.  He was dropped six weeks after coming aboard.

It reached the point that the Falcons were forced to start former practice squad project Drew Davis.  That didn't work either -  he quickly lost the job, with the team then turning to undrafted rookie Darius Johnson.

Atlanta still did not draft a receiver for 2014.  They did finally make an effort to add depth in free agency, adding Devin Hester and later resigning Eric Weems.

However, Kevin Cone was not resigned, and at the start of training camp Darius Johnson reportedly had said he was ready to give up football - and was immediately released.  With Drew Davis on PUP status for the first half of the year, Atlanta still lacked depth and now had an age issue in the receiver group.  Roddy would hit 33 in early November, with Hester turning 32 two days later.  Harry Douglas hit 30 in September, and Weems was already 29.

Should the continuing lack of depth be considered a mistake by our front office?   In Dimitroff's own words, you always want to have that next wave of players coming up.  He's certainly aware of the need to maintain the pipeline, but for six years we had steadily declining depth in our receiver corps. In his eight drafts (including this year), he selected only four wide receivers, while the most significant veteran free agent additions at receiver in the last eight years have been Hankerson (gone) and Hester (not even being used on offense).

The team did not draft a single wideout for Dirk Koetter during his entire three year run as offensive coordinator.  It was the first time in franchise history that Atlanta had gone three straight drafts without selecting a single wideout.

So yes, without a doubt, the team's handling of its receiver depth should be considered not just a mistake but an outright disgrace - one that continued for half a decade.

Part of the problem may have been overconfidence that undrafted prospects would develop into quality contributors.  Undrafted receivers do make it in the NFL -  Wes Welker, Victor Cruz and Danny Amendola come to mind as just a few recent examples.  The Falcons have had their share of intriguing candidates, such as Aaron Kelly, Brandyn Harvey, Ryan Wolfe, "Amsterdam" Boldewijn, Bernard Reedy, and more.

But counting on your newly signed rookies to fill a void is not the way to provide depth.  If they rise through the ranks and win a place on the roster, fantastic.  But when they make the team simply because you have no one else to compete with them, that's a problem.  Cone and Davis never had to beat out anyone other than the other undrafted prospects.

The Falcons finally broke the trend and headed back to a youth movement this year, drafting Justin Hardy and adding prospect Nick Williams as a free agent in addition to Leonard Hankerson.  These may seem like sideways moves, as they also dropped Harry Douglas and Drew Davis - and have already given up on Hankerson.

Still, it's a good start.  The depth is getting younger and better.  Hardy is having a solid rookie campaign (with per game numbers comparable to Harry's rookie season) while Williams has caught more passes this year than Davis did in his 38-game Falcons career.  Hopefully Dimitroff or his successor will continue to address the group in 2016, as Hester, Weems and White are all 30 and older - and with Roddy being the only one of the three that is even a true receiver rather than a special teams specialist.