Coming off a dominant 2016 season that saw the Atlanta Falcons’ produce the most effective offense in franchise history (and the 8th-best offense of all time), there are plenty of question marks heading into 2017. Will the offense ever reach that level of success again? Can Atlanta maintain a top-5 unit despite the departure of OC Kyle Shanahan? Will the team remain healthy enough to succeed in its quest for another Super Bowl berth?
Another question might be how the Falcons’ passing attack changes with the transition to new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian’s system, and how targets will be redistributed with the departures of players like TE Jacob Tamme and WR Aldrick Robinson. Who will be the primary targets in the new, slightly different system? Will certain players or positions see a boost, and others a loss?
We already know that the primary target is going to be none other than Julio Jones. His dominant 2016 season cemented his status as arguably the best receiver in the league, and that’s unlikely to change any time soon. Falcons fans should expect a similar output to the 83 receptions for 1409 yards and 6 TDs we saw last year—hopefully with a few more TDs sprinkled in due to better usage of Julio in the red zone.
The more difficult (and interesting) question is: who will finish the season as the #2 target in the passing game? In 2016 it was Mohamed Sanu, who finished with 59 receptions for 653 yards and 4 TDs. But in an offense like Atlanta’s—where 10 players finished with more than 200 yards and 13 different players scored a receiving TD—there are plenty of opportunities for other options to make the leap.
Another important thing to consider: what actually determines the #2 role? Receptions, yards, or TDs? For this exercise we’ll be using yards, but you could also make an argument for some combination of those stats as well. With that in mind, let’s take a look at a few of the top options that will be competing for that distinguished #2 spot in 2017.
WR Mohamed Sanu
2016 Stats: 59 rec, 653 yds, 11.1 avg, 4 TDs
The incumbent at the position, Sanu is arguably the favorite to win the #2 role again in 2017. As the primary possession receiver, Sanu is likely to see a lot of targets again, and he’s shown that he’s capable of making plays after the catch. He’s a physical player who can often out-muscle smaller DBs at the catch point. The primary concern is that other promising players may eat into his playing time—WRs like Taylor Gabriel and Justin Hardy, and TE Austin Hooper—leading to a loss of production.
WR Taylor Gabriel
2016 Stats: 35 rec, 579 yds, 16.5 avg, 6 TDs
Gabriel was a revelation for the Falcons in 2016. After being picked up off waivers (thanks, Cleveland), Gabriel took some time to transition to the Atlanta offense. Once successfully integrated, Gabriel arguably became the most dynamic threat in the passing game outside of Julio Jones. He’s got exceptional speed, burst, and agility, and is capable of dusting less athletic DBs. Due to Gabriel’s big-play ability and versatility, he’s the biggest challenger to Sanu for the #2 role. If he had started all 16 games in 2016, you could argue that Gabriel would’ve already surpassed him.
RB Devonta Freeman
2016 Stats: 54 rec, 462 yds, 8.6 avg, 2 TDs
If you’re going off of receptions as the biggest indicator of whether a player is the #2 target, Freeman is the primary threat to Sanu in 2017. He trailed the receiver by only 5 catches in 2016, and is a virtual lock to see a healthy dose of targets every single game. The potential danger is that, with Sarkisian’s system being less focused on the FB, that could lead to more instances where Freeman and fellow RB Tevin Coleman are on the field together. In that situation, some of those targets are likely to go towards Coleman.
THE DARK HORSES
TE Austin Hooper
2016 Stats: 19 rec, 271 yds, 14.3 avg, 3 TDs
For those that are firmly on the Austin Hooper bandwagon, there’s absolutely a chance that he could assume that #2 role in 2017. If the rumors that Sarkisian’s offense prioritizes the TE more than Shanahan’s, Hooper is primary beneficiary of those increased looks. Hooper is a dynamic receiving threat and a good blocker, which should translate into plenty of opportunities to catch passes. A 55-catch, 700-yard season would have been enough to supplant Sanu in 2016, and that is within the realm of possibility for the young TE. However, that’s a pretty big jump from his 2016 numbers, and we can’t consider it particularly likely.
RB Tevin Coleman
2016 Stats: 31 rec, 421 yds, 13.6 avg, 3 TDs
Another player that really made a name for himself in 2016, Tevin Coleman was an electric receiver out of the backfield for the Falcons’ potent offense. The 1-2 punch of him and Freeman befuddled defenses and paved the way for a devastating and diverse attack. It’s possible that we may see even more of Coleman as a receiver in 2017, particularly if he and Freeman are on the field together more often. Still, he’s unlikely to see the volume of targets that Freeman will get, so Coleman will need to maintain his very high yards-per-reception numbers to have any chance at the type of numbers he’ll need to be heralded as the #2 option.
The Falcons’ versatile offense naturally lends itself to several players competing to be the #2 receiver. In my opinion, that player is likely to be Taylor Gabriel in 2017, due to his excellent efficiency and bigger role in Sarkisian’s offense. But, as I have already done, you could make an argument for any of these players to seize the job this season.
Who do you believe will finish 2017 as the Falcons’ #2 option in the passing game? Is it one of the players I’ve listed, or someone else even bolder?