Going into the 2016 season, fans were understandably skeptical about the trajectory of the team. The Falcons were coming off a season which saw them start hot at 5-0, only to fizzle out and finish 8-8. Atlanta’s offense was mostly to blame: a rash of red-zone turnovers and a lack of capable receiving options outside of Julio Jones led to a total implosion.
Coming into this season, the Falcons clearly noticed the problems and went about correcting them. The biggest and perhaps most impactful move was signing C Alex Mack from the Cleveland Browns to stabilize a shaky offensive line. Atlanta also went out and signed ex-Bengals WR Mohamed Sanu to replace the possession role that Roddy White had played.
While the Mack signing was met with almost universal praise, the Sanu signing was met with derision. Outside of those moves, however, the team made a few lower-profile ones: signing WR Aldrick Robinson, claiming WR Taylor Gabriel after the Browns cut him, drafting TE Austin Hooper, and signing an undrafted TE by the name of Josh Perkins.
While most fans and analysts were up-in-arms about whether Sanu was worth the money he got and if he could even handle a WR2 role, the Falcons were quietly building one of the deepest and most well-rounded receiving corps that the franchise had ever seen.
Atlanta entered the season with an unusual roster structure: keeping 6 WRs and 4(!) TEs. Here is what the depth chart looked like to start the season:
WR1: Julio Jones
WR2: Mohamed Sanu
WR3: Taylor Gabriel
WR4: Aldrick Robinson
WR5: Justin Hardy
WR6: Eric Weems
TE1: Jacob Tamme
TE2: Austin Hooper
TE3: Levine Toilolo
TE4: Josh Perkins
Among these players, maybe three (Jones, Sanu, Tamme) were proven and somewhat dependable. The rest were pure question marks, at best. Some were cast-offs—free agents, cuts, and undrafted players off the scrap heap. Others were second and third-year players that had thus far failed to make an impact.
Fans were understandably nervous, based on the way last season had turned out. Free agents—like Leonard Hankerson—had raised our hopes and quickly dashed them. But this season, something quite different was happening. It wouldn’t become clear until most of the way through the season, but Atlanta’s talent evaluators had carefully selected players with the skillsets they needed to succeed in Kyle Shanahan’s offense.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the key contributors this season and their unique skillsets, to see how well-rounded this receiving corps really is.
Stats: 83 rec, 1409 yds, 17.0 avg, 6 TD
Julio doesn’t need much of an introduction. He’s an elite size/speed receiver with great hands and off-the-charts athleticism. Julio demands double-teams wherever he lines up, and he can line up anywhere. Even elite CBs struggle against Julio one-on-one, meaning safety help is almost always present. Julio’s mere presence on the field draws the attention of multiple defenders, and he’s the clear #1 weapon in Atlanta’s passing attack.
Stats: 59 rec, 653 yds, 11.1 avg, 4 TD
Sanu is a WR with great size (6’2, 210) and solid hands. His most important attribute is his ability to make catches in traffic and across the middle, and he’s been a standout player on third down. Sanu is also above average after the catch and is quite difficult to bring down once running. Not to mention, he’s got experience as a QB and can be deployed out of the wildcat or in trick-play situations (flea flickers, etc).
Stats: 35 rec, 579 yds, 16.5 avg, 6 TD
Gabriel is perhaps the biggest surprise contributor on this offense. He’s a small WR with game-breaking speed (4.28, and it’s legitimate) that is a very dangerous deep threat. He’s also got surprisingly good vision and agility, making him effective on screen passes, jet sweeps, and potentially on returns. Gabriel fulfills the role of deep threat opposite Julio—forcing defenses to respect the deep ball on both sides of the field.
Stats: 20 rec, 323 yds, 16.1 avg, 2 TD
For a player snatched off the free agent pile at the beginning of the offseason, Robinson has been a tremendously reliable option in the passing game. He’s got great speed and is capable of filling the deep threat role—which he does when Julio or Gabriel need a breather. Robinson also has good hands and solid size, and has proven that he’s capable of filling in as a possession receiver as well. He’s a great rotational WR, and there hasn’t been much drop-off when he comes in for one of the above WRs.
Stats: 21 rec, 203 yds, 9.7 avg, 4 TD
Hardy was a fourth round pick from 2015, and after a disappointing rookie season, he seems to have found his niche. He’s a player with average size and average athleticism, but fantastic hands. Hardy is capable of making circus catches look routine, and he does nearly it every game. He’s become one of Ryan’s favorite red-zone targets, and is improving as a route runner each week.
Stats: 19 rec, 271 yds, 14.3 avg, 3 TD
Hooper has struggled at times during his rookie season, but he’s been improving every week. When Tamme went down with injury, the Falcons went to TE-by-committee, and haven’t missed a beat. Hooper is a great blocker with excellent hands and deceptive athleticism. He needs some work as a route runner, but he’s been dependable in the red zone and has been responsible for several splash plays.
Stats: 13 rec, 264 yds, 20.3 avg, 2 TD
Toilolo was a player that many fans and analysts had written off going into the season, but Shanahan clearly liked him and kept him around. He’s always had great size (6’8, 265), but had never been able to use it effectively. Well, he’s figured it out now. Toilolo has been one the best blocking TEs in the league in 2016, regularly taking on DEs and LBs with ease. He’s also been surprisingly effective as a receiver, with the highest receiving average on the team at 20.3 yards/reception.
These are the main contributors, but other players that have played smaller roles have also been effective when called upon. Josh Perkins has seen more and more playing time with the injuries at TE, and is showing off his impressive athleticism and improving hands. D.J. Tialavea has just been activated from the practice squad, but is a solid blocker and has already hauled in a receiving TD. Nick Williams has been active lately with injuries to Julio and Gabriel, and has been his old self: showing off great hands and an ability to find the open area and convert on third down.
A common refrain of people that are trying to dismiss Matt Ryan’s MVP campaign is that he has a tremendous group of weapons that buoy his stats. Yet, how many of these players were regarded as such before the 2016 season? The answer is just one: Julio Jones.
Matt Ryan has undoubtedly benefited from a diverse and deep receiving corps, but outside of Jones, none of these players are elite or even high tier talents. What they are, however, is much more important: perfect scheme fits for the offense that Ryan and Shanahan are running.
The number and variety of weapons that Ryan has at his disposal are what make all the difference for this offense. If the Falcons need to convert a third and short, Ryan can look to Julio, Sanu, Robinson, Hardy, the TEs, or just hand it off to the RBs (who aren’t touched on in this article, but who are equally responsible for the offense’s incredible success). Third and long? There’s Julio, Gabriel, Robinson, Toilolo sneaking out of the formation after chipping, or a RB on a wheel route.
There are so many options available to Ryan—and that is what makes this offense so difficult to defend. However, it takes a certain kind of QB to effectively take advantage of such a diverse group of players. If you created that QB from the ground up, it would probably resemble Ryan almost exactly. Ryan’s ability to read the defense, deep knowledge of the offense, and quick, accurate throwing style are perfect for Shanahan’s scheme.
So you see, the reason this offense is historically good—8th highest-scoring offense of all time good—is the combination of all these factors. Ryan is the perfect field marshal to distribute the ball to a seemingly limitless pool of WRs, TEs, and RBs that all have unique and important roles in this offense.
The genius of it all is that the majority of these players were passed over or rejected by other teams. Kudos to Atlanta’s front office and coaching staff for finding the hidden gems among the scraps—they’ve assembled the best offense in Falcons’ history, and one of the best of all-time. The only thing this Falcons’ offense has left to prove is if they can continue their dominance in the post-season.
Here’s to hoping that they can, and that Matt Ryan and the 2016 Atlanta Falcons end up hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. If they do so, it’ll be on the backs of players like Taylor Gabriel and Aldrick Robinson—who in the span of one season went from cast-offs to key players on the best offense in the NFL.