When Tony Gonzalez retired in 2013, reinforcements were going to be needed. That is always the case from having to replace a future Hall Of Famer. Not many quarterbacks have been privileged with three studs at their disposal. Atlanta experienced that for one full season, when all three players were healthy in 2012. They nearly went to the Super Bowl and were nearly impossible to stop in the red zone. Julio Jones and Gonzalez were massive targets that caused opposing defenses' nightmares.
In 2014, Atlanta's offense faltered on numerous occasions inside the red zone. With defenses keying on Jones and Levine Toilolo unable to create any sort of separation, scoring touchdowns within the red zone was a problematic task. Harry Douglas and Devin Hester aren't exactly red-zone weapons that can consistently make catches in traffic. Another option was desperately needed for Matt Ryan to be more effective during these particular situations. With no true power back on the roster, they needed another tall wide receiver to relive pressure from Jones.
Leonard Hankerson was a great prospect coming out of Miami. His ability to make catches across the middle stood out through his college and pro career. Mike Shanahan utilized him in a variety of ways from the slot to flanker. While his production was wildly inconsistent, a run-first offense and unstable quarterback situation certainly limited his upside. A torn ACL in 2013 and being inactive in 2014 ruined the once promising wide receiver's stock. Teams questioned his ability to stay healthy and concentrated.
Hankerson's main issue has always been dealing with drops. Whether it was catching with his body too often or worrying about the upcoming hit, drops became a common occurrence. Some team was bound to take a chance on him, given that he wasn't going to command more than a one-year contract and had the intangibles of being a productive receiver. Kyle Shanahan's past experience working with him made Atlanta an ideal fit.
They desperately needed new talent at wide receiver, as Harry Douglas was entering the downside of his career. Devin Hester is 32 years old and shouldn't be utilized as a full-time wide receiver. A one-year "prove it deal" appeared to me a wise business move. Similar to O'Brien Schofield and Adrian Clayborn, Hankerson has produced like a player that will receive a long-term extension. With Roddy White locked up by Prince Amukamara in man coverage, Hankerson was needed in order for Atlanta to overcome their road woes against the New York Giants.
From operating in the slot, the explosive wide receiver started with a key third down catch during Atlanta's first scoring drive. Hankerson embraces running towards the middle and making catches in traffic. Multiple drops did stifle the offense through various points of the game. As Atlanta's deficit increased, Hankerson was needed to give Jones much-needed support.
Matt Ryan desperately needed another outlet in the red zone, particularly on third-and-long situations. Despite being essentially double-covered, Hankerson hauled in a remarkable ten-yard touchdown. The pass couldn't have been more precise from Ryan. Hankerson had to make a terrific individual play, along with maintaining control of the ball. According to Ryan, they've worked on that play extensively throughout training camp. His first breakout game with Atlanta didn't end there. The offense faced another critical third down with only two minutes left.
Despite Antrell Rolle's failed attempts at playing nickel corner last year, the Giants position their best cover safety towards handling coverage responsibilities within the slot. Brandon Meriweather's resume is far from flattering. That left overwhelmed rookie Landon Collins covering Hankerson without any support. A simple out route from Hankerson converted the first down, along with Collins inexcusably not completing the tackle. Rookie mistakes like that will leave Tom Coughlin fuming for an entire week.
Hankerson finished the game with six catches for 77 yards and one touchdown. It was his most productive game, since September 9th 2013 against the Philadelphia Eagles. That game is well known for the birth of Chip Kelly's brilliance (or madness given Philadelphia's struggles). It has been over two years since "Hank Time" made his presence felt. Shanahan will rotate him throughout the season, although Sunday's production mainly came from inside the slot.
At 26 years old, Hankerson has tremendous upside for a wide receiver. He is finally playing with a stable quarterback that already trusts him. With Hester returning shortly, Atlanta's offense will become even more dangerous. It has been an inconsistent first two weeks for the overall offense. They've certainly generated big plays, especially in the fourth quarter. If they can be more consistent by not dropping four passes a game and committing silly penalties, this offense should be highly productive all season long. Hankerson's excellent off-season has translated into on-field production. Now he'll need to stay consistent to earn his full stay in Atlanta.