Welcome to another round of The Falcoholic’s Midseason Position Reviews.
As the train move down the line on offensive position groups, the next stop is wide receivers, a unit now in flux after being one of the Falcons’ obvious strengths leaving 2016.
The Falcons get an obvious boost in having the league’s best player at the position in Julio Jones, and have enjoyed surprising production from guys like Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel since their arrivals. But, as the offense continues to spark and sputter in relentless fashion, fingers are pointing in all kinds of directions. Does the receiver group deserve any of the criticism?
In the words of the Tootsie Pop owl, “Leeeeet’s find ouuuut.”
WR Julio Jones – 43/68, 658 yards, 1 touchdown (avg. 15.3 yards per catch)
WR Mohamed Sanu – 31/44, 325 yards, 3 touchdowns (avg. 10.5 yards per catch)
WR Taylor Gabriel – 20/33, 245 yards, 1 touchdown (avg. 12.4 yards a catch)
WR Justin Hardy – 10/15, 112 yards, 1 touchdown (avg. 11.2 yards a catch)
WR Andre Roberts – 1/4, 12 yards, 0 touchdowns (avg. 12 yards a catch)
WR Nick Williams – 3/4, 30 yards, 0 touchdowns (avg. 10 yards a catch)
WR Marvin Hall – 1/2, 40 yards, 1 touchdown (avg. 40 yards a catch)
Looking at the statistics above, one key number sticks out – seven. That’s the number of touchdowns this entire receiving group has through eight games. Take away the one touchdown from two-catch receiver Marvin Hall, and it’s six.
Jones, who by all accounts is the most physically gifted and intimidating offensive weapon to ever don a Falcons uniform, only has one touchdown – a last-second desperation grab against the New England Patriots. Sure, he dropped the potential game winner against Carolina last week, but even Achilles had a heel.
If you need any convincing of how odd this is – Julio usually has about six-eight touchdowns a season. If this pace continues, he will have about two in 2017. For an unit as prolific as 2016’s offense was, one player having six receiving touchdowns is pretty indicative of how well the quarterback (and by extension, the offensive coordinator) was spreading the ball around. In 2017, the Falcons have taken such a sharp dive in scoring that the league’s best receiver is only on pace to have about two or three trips to the end zone.
How bizarre, how bizarre.
Jones has been nagged by injuries all year, but then again, injuries are appearing to be just part of how it is with 11. They don’t really hinder him from much, and he tends to heal faster than your average wide receiver. Jones isn’t ever likely to have a “fully healthy season,” but his dominance isn’t likely to be stomped out by a sore foot or ailing hip flexor anytime soon. No, no – the coaching will be the only thing that holds a player like Jones back.
Some have been critical of the way Steve Sarkisian has used Jones this season, particularly taking away his role as a deep threat and using him more as a possession receiver. Really, Sark has thrown the deep ball more to Julio than we remember, but Matt Ryan and Jones just haven’t connected the same way we’re used to seeing on long passes. They did Sunday against Carolina, so hopefully that connection is starting to heat up.
Sanu has been reliable this season, and is the only player on the Falcons’ roster who seems to be showing improvement with Sark calling the plays. Maybe that’s more equitable to the fact Sanu has upped his game substantially as his time in Atlanta has gone on. He’s the team’s leading touchdown receiver, a consistent presence in the slot and has been a bright spot on this tumultuous offense this season. He even got to run the wildcat once this season, which is fun.
Gabriel and Hardy have been stark disappointments in Sarkisian’s game plans. Sark just hasn’t used Gabriel’s talents to the team’s advantage consistently enough. He’s barely called on for deep passes, the sweeps and short passes that Shanahan used to Atlanta’s strength last season have lost their shine, and Turbo is far-too often put into rough spots (particularly in the red zone, where his shorter stature is picked on by taller corners). Gabriel’s 2016 emergence stood as an enticing wrinkle to Atlanta’s offense. In 2017, he’s one of the most disappointing factors, and it’s hard to really peg him for any of the ire. He’s doing what he’s asked.
Hardy’s ability to convert third downs and his steady hands aren’t nearly used enough, either. Outside of his game-ending miss in the Buffalo game, Sarkisian hasn’t taken advantage of what makes Hardy such a clutch receiver – he’s got sure hands, and is a third down maven. With Atlanta’s struggles to convert when the first and second downs fail, one wonders if adding Hardy more in to the game plan would help, at least somewhat.
As for Andre Roberts, “Scrappy” Nick Williams and preseason favorite Marvin Hall, Sarkisian has not shown any interest in getting them involved in the game plan outside of a trick play here and a conversion play there. Roberts is making his money on returns, while Williams and Hall twist and turn between being inactive and active/only on special teams. Of the three, Hall has the most upside, and has already hauled in a touchdown on a deep pass. It’s a bit perplexing as to why he’s not more featured in Sarkisian’s offense, being that he’s Sark’s guy, and he’s earned a spot on the 53 for a reason. Perhaps getting Hall more snaps will help the overall unit more than we think.
Saying “throw more to Julio Jones” feels like a bit obvious, but it goes deeper than just increasing his targets. Sarkisian needs to use Jones more effectively, and better understand what’s so lethal about his game. He was starting to do a better job of that against Carolina, so perhaps it’s starting to click a little more for the offensive coordinator as to how to utilize his best weapon.
Sanu needs to keep doing what he’s doing, and commendations to Sarkisian to getting him involved to the degree that he is. To be honest, if Sanu is a weapon he understands how to use properly, he needs to rely on him even more than he already is.
Gabriel’s situation gives great pause. He’s a free agent after this season, and if Atlanta cannot find a way to fire up his strengths, it’s hard to imagine, sans a big contract or just a general desire to stick around in town, he wishes to return. The 49ers are going to have a mountain of cap space, and Gabriel could opt to reunite with Kyle Shanahan, who gave Turbo chances in both Cleveland and Atlanta, and knew how to use him. If Sarkisian continues to flounder with such a versatile threat, it’s fair to wonder if Gabriel is long for this team (particularly with the tight cap on the horizon). Losing Turbo would put even more of a damper on the entire 2017 shebang.
The same goes for Hardy after the 2018 season, who is a Shanahan guy, and could arguably be a WR3 elsewhere. At least Hardy has another year on his rookie deal to gel with this new system.
Roberts feels like his tenure will end after this season unless he plays better in the return game, with his place in the offense virtually nonexistent. Williams will always have his perks, but the current regime keeps him inactive more than not. Let’s hope Hall sees more targets going forward, if only for the fact that this offense isn’t likely to zap themselves into their 2016 form anytime soon, and extra reps will give the Falcons a chance to better evaluate what he brings to the table.
Right now, the wideouts stand as another position group on offense whose problems stem back to the coaching. It’s painfully evident that Sarkisian has a lot of work to do to get this group more involved and this offense more accustomed to each receiver’s individual strengths (sans Sanu).
All any Falcons fan can do at this point is just tightly cross their fingers that the first-year OC can sand over the bumps in the interim.