Of all the position groups addressed in the off-season, the wide receiver corps looks like one that could be particularly good. Granted, it's a group that is led by top-5 WR Julio Jones but for the first time in a while, the Falcons may have a particularly deep group at the position. Based on the early returns from training camp, the team may have some difficult decisions to make due to this depth.
Let's start with the obvious: Julio is still dominant. But if the early word out of camp is true, he may be even more so this year. Jones lost an additional 5 pounds during the off-season and has said that he has an "extra gear" that he didn't last year, which is frightening news for any defensive coordinator. Julio had the benefit of having a full off-season to train and it appears to have paid off. The only lingering concern for Jones is getting a long-term deal done, though talks are continuing.
Since 2008, no Atlanta receiver has been more targeted than Roddy White. The 33 year old veteran (who turns 34 in November) had a good season last year, though he played through some lingering knee issues. Those knee issues appear to be sticking around too, as White had to get his knee drained in the past couple of weeks. Roddy insists that he still has plenty left in the tank, but his role may be diminished somewhat based on some of the younger guys coming in. He's looked good in camp so far, but many are wondering if this is the last season he'll be on the team.
The New Guys
One of the more intriguing off-season acquisitions was Leonard Hankerson, formerly of the Washington Redskins. The 6'2" WR out of the University of Miami has been hampered by injuries throughout his NFL career. The Falcons signed him to a 1 year "prove it" deal and so far he's doing exactly that. Hankerson has lit up camp so far, quickly establishing a rapport with Ryan and flashing good mobility, good route running, excellent hands and a wide catch radius. He's consistently caught balls in traffic and his understanding of the offense has given him a leg up on the competition. If he can continue this trend, Hankerson could force himself into significant playing time especially if Roddy's knee continues to bother him.
Another name that has impressed early in camp is Justin Hardy, our fourth round pick out of East Carolina. The 6'0" receiver finished his college career with the most receptions in FBS history. While he doesn't possess great size or top-end speed, Hardy has fantastic hands and is a very good route runner. His first few days in camp were somewhat quiet, but he has consistently gotten better and is regularly complimented by teammates like Ryan and Jones. With Hankerson lighting up camp so far, Hardy may have a hard time getting significant reps at first but his potential is already showing. While I wouldn't expect big things from him in 2015, he's setting up to be a significant contributor down the road.
The Fringe Guys
With the great news on the development of guys like Hankerson and Hardy, there are some names that have been pushed into the shadows a bit. Devin Hester even questioned what his role would be coming into camp, given the two acquisitions mentioned above. So far, he looks like he's still going to get some snaps in the Falcons new offense as he continues to be a receiver that Ryan looks for. Any questions about his age should be put to rest, as Hester still looks to have that top-end speed that defenses fear. While he doesn't have the route running chops or soft hands of some of his teammates, he can still be a deadly downfield threat for the Falcons. However, his role after this season is definitely up in the air.
Another special teams veteran who is being overshadowed is Eric Weems. While Weems is definitely known more for his special teams acumen, he has occasionally slipped in for slot receiver responsibilities. What will help Weems stick on the roster is his phenomenal special teams play. However, he's on the back-end of his career and his contributions as a receiver are easily replaced. Of any of the guys listed in this article, he may be the most on the bubble.
Meanwhile, guys like Bernard Reedy and Marquez Clark are really playing for the future. It's highly unlikely that either guy can crack the 53-man roster, but both can attempt to snag a spot on the practice squad with an eye towards carving out a role in 2016 and beyond.
In total, this is a receiver group that looks to be pretty talented and remarkably deep. With Roddy approaching his final years in the NFL, it was critical for the team to begin putting some depth together. Mission accomplished. I personally can't wait to see all of these guys on the field to see how it all shakes out. What are your thoughts on the receivers currently in camp?