This is going to be a rather long read, so I’ll spare you the customary lengthy introduction. Suffice to say we’re going to take a look at the free agent wideout market and see what’s out there for the Falcons, if they elect to explore solutions at the position using their (limited) free agent dollars instead of the draft. There are some quality options out there, including one familiar face who could return.
Let’s get to it.
I’ve been critical of Gabriel’s production all year, but I don’t lay a lot of blame at Gabriel’s feet. He is a tremendously useful player in the right offense, as his speed and elusiveness in the open field make him incredibly dangerous. He’s also an option out of the backfield as a runner, which means you can never be completely sure what he’s up to.
The problem is that Steve Sarkisian showed very little feel for Gabriel’s value. A random jet sweep here or there and plenty of routes where Gabriel was left to fend for himself against decent cornerbacks meant a disappointing year for him, and if Sark can’t gameplan ways to get Gabriel open looks and creative touches, Atlanta has to be willing to maximize Turbo’s strengths in order to bring him back, or they’re just wasting his talent. That said, Gabriel would be a fine, fairly reasonable re-addition to this receiving corps if the team can utilize him better.
If the Falcons want to try for a passing attack that gives them three truly terrific receivers—and they’re willing to pay for it—these players could be options.
Nothing about Watkins’ career to this point has been as easy and smooth as it should have been. Watkins is a borderline elite talent, but he’s missed 12 games over the last three seasons and has only had one truly brilliant season. In 2017, he had a fine but unspectacular year. He’ll head to the open market with injury and production depressing his market value a bit, but he’ll probably get $5-6 million per year easy from a team in love with his talent.
So why would the Falcons be interested, if they had the money? Because Watkins is a very good red zone option, a productive wide receiver who has averaged over 15 yards per reception in his career with some mediocre-to-good quarterback play, and he’s just 24 years old. His value will arguably never be lower than it is right now, and Watkins, Julio Jones, and Mohamed Sanu would be a stellar trio capable of wreaking untold havoc on opposing offenses, even if the play calling wasn’t up to snuff. It’s a bit of a pipe dream, but one I’m indulging at the moment.
A-Rob was an absolute beast in 2015, averaging 17.5 yards per reception, scoring 14 touchdowns, and collecting 1,400 yards. He followed that up with a quality but quieter 2016 (73 receptions, 880 yards, 6 touchdowns) and a deeply unfortunate injury that cost him essentially his entire season. At 24 years old with a history of production, he’ll have a robust market if he’s entirely healthy.
I’d love to see the Falcons sign Robinson, who may be a little slow to start coming off his injury, but is young and has all the talent in the world to bring to Atlanta. He’d be a nice complement to the team’s existing offensive talent.
Besides Doug Baldwin, Richardson was really the only truly productive wide receiver in Seattle this past season. He’s not particularly big or strong, but he’s quick and showed impressive ability to get separation in 2017, especially playing in an offense that was basically Russell Wilson running for his life behind a line that couldn’t block.
Richardson is still just 25, too. The sour notes here are that he’s coming off arguably his only quality season to this point, but I’ve long been a fan of his talent and think he’s primed to continue the breakout. The chief questions with Richardson will be cost and competition for his services, as the Ravens are among the half-dozen or so teams rumored to be interested in acquiring him.
If the Falcons are looking to get a solid third receiver who can at least approximate the value of Gabriel, albeit perhaps in a different way, here are a few options they could consider.
There was a time, not so long ago, when I really liked Matthews. He’s a big (6’3”, 212), rangy receiver who excelled in the slot for the Eagles, displaying consistent hands and a knack for big grabs in the red zone. His production plummeted in Buffalo last year in a disappointing season that was also marred by injury, but at 25, Matthews still should have plenty of good football in front of him.
In many ways, Matthews would represent one of the best options when you balance cost, role, and skill, as he’d offer size and good hands, and should be able to find plenty of targets as the third receiver in this offense. The problem is that he’s not much of a deep threat, and the Falcons could still use another one of those. His 2017 season also has to give you some pause, but I’d certainly take him if the price was right.
I don’t consider Landry a legitimate option for the Falcons at his current asking price. If his market doesn’t materialize, though, perhaps they’ll take a look at the hyper-productive wideout, who is coming off a career season.
Landry has very good hands and was a target vacuum during his four years in Miami, soaking up a preposterous 570 balls thrown his way over that span. That production, his quickness, and his hands means some team is going to pay him a ton of money this offseason. The fact that he’s averaged 10.1 yards per reception in his career tells you that he’s not much of a deep threat, and I’d wonder how productive he’ll be if his targets were to be cut in half, as they could very well be with the Falcons. He’d be a useful player in Atlanta, but I’m not sure he’d be enough of an upgrade on Taylor Gabriel to justify his price tag, considering he’s said to be seeking over $10 million annually.
Like Watkins, Pryor is coming off a vaguely disappointing season. Unlike Watkins, he didn’t have a stellar offense to help him out, and he doesn’t have the same pedigree and history to make his market more robust. The size and speed are evident here, and Pryor did excellent work with a random cast of quarterbacks in Cleveland. He’d be a worthwhile flier, especially if his price is relatively low.
I had somehow almost forgotten about Moncrief, but that would be a mistake. He’s young, fast, and explosive, and he’d be a genuinely interesting player in a Falcons offense that could still use that size/speed combination. Moncrief’s production wasn’t up to snuff the last couple of seasons, but he’d be playing in a better offense with a better quarterback in 2018 in Atlanta, which I imagine would make a huge difference.
With Gabriel possibly out the door, Nick Williams reaching free agency, and Justin Hardy due to reach free agency after the 2018 season, perhaps the Falcons will explore simply adding solid depth to the mix. Here are the top options in that category, if you can call them that.
Decker was once one of the league’s premier scorers at the wideout position, pairing quality athleticism with size and canny route-running. Then he lost most of his 2016 season to injury and was a pretty disappointing afterthought in a frustrating Titans offense in 2017, and he’s scored just three touchdowns combined over the last two seasons. He’ll be 31 in 2018.
As an avowed fan of Decker most of his career—I advocated for the Falcons to draft him way back in 2010—I’d be willing to give him a shot on a one-year, prove-it deal, which is probably all he’s going to be able to get at this point. Decker hasn’t been part of a truly good offense in years, and the team could still use more quality red zone options.
Aiken is coming off, bluntly, a bad season. He joined the Colts on a one year deal after some productive years in Baltimore, and wound up with a pitiful 133 yards on 15 receptions, with just a 34.1% catch rate. That year is probably going to force him to take something approaching the veteran minimum wherever he goes.
As a fourth or fifth receiver, though, I like Aiken just fine. He’s not going to reach the heights he did a few years back when he reeled in 75 receptions for the Ravens, but he’s mostly shown solid hands over the course of his career and could be had very cheaply if the Falcons decide they’re not willing to commit a ton of resources to the receiver position.