We love a good roundtable, and after considering the weakest position on the Falcons roster a week ago, it seems appropriate to turn our sunny faces toward a more positive thought. What, we asked one another, is the strongest position on the roster for 2015?
I tried mightily to find a position group on this team that was stronger than wide receiver and I simply couldn't. While we're not the 1998 Braves pitching rotation in terms of top-to-bottom talent, we do have a logjam of talent that can't go unrecognized. Promising young WRs such as Bernard Reedy could be given the axe simply because we don't have room for him on the roster.
Hankerson and Hardy provide a nice, youthful infusion to a WR group that was steadily growing older. Hardy's catching ability cannot be understated. Of all the teams that sling the ball all over the place in college, Justin Hardy was the guy to catch the most passes of anyone in all of NCAA history. Despite his small stature, his hands are massive and his circus catches are well documented. Don't sleep on this guy, he could be an instant contributor.
That doesn't even count Julio Jones, who is a monster in his own right and stands atop this mighty pillar. You know what you're going to get out of him. He's faster than you, stronger than you, and can catch better than you. He'll lead the charge and take the heat away from savvy veterans Roddy White, Eric Weems, and Devin Hester. Man, this position is stacked!
Wide receiver seems to be the predominant choice, which makes plenty of sense given the star power of Julio Jones, the tenure of Roddy White and the upside of Justin Hardy. But I figured I'd spotlight another strong part of this Falcons team, especially since it's often overlooked.
Ageless kicker Matt Bryant was among the league's best last year (29-for-32 on all field goal attempts), Matt Bosher has some of the best punter's touch in the game (40.7 net average) and Josh Harris is a serviceable long snapper. Add in the fantastic returning abilities of Devin Hester and ace gunner Eric Weems, and suddenly you've got some serious talent returning to this unit.
That Dan Quinn kept Keith Armstrong around should say enough, but if it didn't: Pro Football Focus gave the Falcons a +35.3 special teams rating in 2014, good for seventh-best in the NFL. In a dark year for the Falcons, special teams was a refreshing bright spot, and I have every reason to believe that group's success will continue this season.
Defensive tackle narrowly misses out, due to lacking a true difference maker. A 27-year old Jonathan Babineaux may have changed my opinion. It has to be wide receiver based on the playmakers amongst this group. Julio Jones is an elite talent that carried Atlanta's passing attack at times last year. His performance against Green Bay is still mesmerizing, considering that game was virtually over at halftime.
Roddy White is still dependable following a strong second half of the season. At 33 years old, it's evident that his decline has started. That still doesn't eliminate his ability towards being an excellent possession receiver. White can still make catches in traffic and find small openings in coverage. The insertion of Justin Hardy should be a game-changer as well. Atlanta didn't have a receiver in the slot that can make catches in traffic and run excellent routes last year. Hardy provides those endearing qualities for a slot receiver.
Devin Hester and Leonard Hankerson puts the wide receiver position over the edge. That may sound odd, but look at the Falcons receiver depth over the past few years. The likes of Drew Davis and Kevin Cone were thrusted into playing significant snaps at one point. Neither player was capable of getting open against man coverage or stretching the field. Hester is still someone that has to be accounted for at all times. Hankerson is a proven deep threat that has made defenses suffer in the past. Both receivers struggle with drops on occasion. That doesn't overshadow the intrigue of two players that have breakaway speed and can make defenders miss. This may be the first time that the Falcons have five capable receivers in franchise history.
If Julio Jones happened to be the only wide receiver listed on the roster, I still would've selected this group as the strongest. Running mate and long-time Falcon Roddy White fought injuries last season and still managed to haul in 80 receptions for 921 yards and seven touchdowns in 14 games. Leonard Hankerson, a big, fast target, could have his career revitalized now that he'll have a quality quarterback throwing him the ball. Devin Hester, who finished with 504 receiving yards last season, has the speed to make opposing defenses pay on screens. Then there's rookie Justin Hardy who has a chance to become an instant contributor from the slot position. For once, the Falcons actually have quality depth at the wide receiver position.
I haven't felt this good about a Falcons receiving corps in years. Besides one of the best wide receivers in the NFL in Julio Jones, the Falcons have wily veteran Roddy White, talented veteran Leonard Hankerson, promising rookie Justin Hardy and a speedy gadget option in Devin Hester. This is a true team strength.
Even after losing Corey Peters to free agency, I believe the Falcons will field one of the better defensive tackle units in the NFL. Though he received some criticism last year, Paul Soliai is a quality nose tackle who can plug the interior and make his teammates better. Babineaux can still contribute, though he shouldn't be getting 80% of the snaps. If his snaps are managed better, he can be a force in the middle like he once was. But really, the key to this position comes in the form of two of our younger players: Ra'Shede Hageman and Grady Jarrett. Hageman showed flashes last year of his tremendous potential. He's already shown up to camp in great shape and looks ready to take the next step. Jarrett is already being declared one of the steals of the draft, and is likely to contribute immediately.
Granted, there's some projection going on with this unit - the hope is that Jarrett and Hageman both pan out. I'm optimistic they will, which will make this rotation of DTs a good one with the potential to be great.
Readers have regularly asked me how undrafted free agent wide receivers, like fan favorite Bernard Reedy, looked throughout OTAs and minicamp, and while a few guys have stood out, it's difficult to imagine where they fit on a depth chart that's already stacked.
You have Julio Jones and his elite talent and a dependable veteran in Roddy White. There's fourth rounder Justin Hardy and free agent acquisition Leonard Hankerson, both of whom looked phenomenal throughout minicamp. Devin Hester and Eric Weems round out the depth chart. This unit has come a long way in a short time.
Share your thoughts on the strong position on the roster, if you would.