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How does the Falcons offense change with Sanu gone?

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With Mohamed Sanu headed to New England, the Falcons have a sizable hole to fill on offense. How might Atlanta’s offense change in Sanu’s absence, and who might see a larger role in 2019 and beyond?

Atlanta Falcons v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

The news that the Falcons traded Mohamed Sanu to the Patriots for a second-round pick earlier this week was a little bit shocking. Not the trade itself, necessarily: we’d heard rumors that Sanu was desired on the market in the offseason, and his contract and likelihood to be cut for cap reasons in 2020 made him a logical candidate. It was the compensation—a second-round pick, which will probably be closer to a third when it’s all said and done—that shocked me. Sanu was Atlanta’s WR3, and while he’d been solid in 2019, he wasn’t exactly blowing up the league.

I’m sad to see Sanu go, as he was a very fun player to watch and an excellent teammate. He’ll be missed by the fanbase and the locker room. That being said, the compensation was excellent—I expected a fourth-rounder at best, if we’re being honest. With Sanu gone, however, there’s a pretty significant hole to fill in the offense. Let’s take a closer look at the new WR depth chart, and how Atlanta’s offense might change with Sanu no longer in the picture.

Falcons WR Depth Chart

WR1 Julio Jones
WR2 Calvin Ridley
WR3 Russell Gage
WR4 Justin Hardy
WR5 Olamide Zaccheaus
WR6 Christian Blake

For starters, Sanu’s absence pushes all the other WRs up the depth chart by 1 spot. That means we’re likely to see more of Russell Gage and Justin Hardy, as one—or both—will now be weekly contributors in the offense. It’s also likely that we’ll see Olamide Zaccheaus active and potentially used in some scenarios, though I’d expect his usage to be inconsistent at best. Sanu’s vacant roster spot was recently filled by UDFA Christian Blake, who made a strong case for the roster this preseason but was just edged out by Zaccheaus.

To further understand how Sanu’s departure changes things for Atlanta’s offense, we need to take a closer look at his target share and overall role. Sanu was targeted 42 times over the first seven games—good for about 15% of the overall target share and fourth on the team behind Julio (62 targets, 22%), Hooper (55 targets, 19.5%), and Ridley (44 targets, 15.6%). That’s a lot of “available” targets in the offense, which means someone is going to see an increased role.

Who could see an increased role in Atlanta’s offense?

20% of an offense is a lot, which is why I’d be surprised if Sanu’s departure resulted in substantially more targets for Julio or Hooper. The clearest beneficiary of this trade is probably Calvin Ridley, who will likely see his target share spike to around 20% as a result. This is an important move for 2019 and for the future, as Ridley needs to become a much bigger part of the offense. That still leaves another 10% of Atlanta’s target share up for grabs, however.

If I had to make a prediction, I’d say we’ll see Russell Gage be given an opportunity to claim most of those targets. Gage has struggled with injuries early this season, but he’s shown an ability to make fantastic catches and has plenty of athletic ability. While he lacks exceptional size, Gage has downfield ability: his 11.0 yards per catch is fourth on the team among those with more than one target. The only players ahead of him are the usual suspects: Julio (14.0), Ridley (12.9), and Hooper (11.4).

It makes a lot more sense to give Gage the targets as opposed to someone like Justin Hardy because of the situation the Falcons find themselves in. If Atlanta was still competitive, Hardy would be the logical choice due to his experience in the offense. In a lost season, however, it’s smarter to see what your young players can do on the field. Gage needs the reps and could potentially carve out a substantial future role as Atlanta’s WR3. Giving him a chance to play a lot in 2019 could inform the team’s decision in regards to drafting a WR in 2020. If Gage excels, the team can probably wait until later on Day 3 to add depth. If he struggles, it’ll likely push the need up the board a bit.

Another potential beneficiary is UDFA TE Jaeden Graham. Graham was the Falcons best receiver in the preseason, but has only 1 catch to his name in 2019: an impressive 21-yarder. Graham could be given more opportunities with the starters, particularly in light of Stocker’s struggles as a receiver. Again, with the team virtually eliminated from postseason contention, the onus should be on evaluating the young players and giving them as many game reps as possible.

I suppose it’s possible that Koetter attempts to “circle the wagons”, refusing to give up on the season and stubbornly sticking to his guns on offense. In this scenario, we’d likely see Hardy get the majority of Sanu’s reps in a similar role. We’d probably also see more targets for Freeman, who has functioned as a reliable safety valve for Ryan this season. This route probably doesn’t help the Falcons offense in a meaningful way this season, but it’s the more conservative option—which feels like something Koetter might do, because reasons. It also has the unfortunate side effect of not giving any young players game opportunities, which sucks.

I’m going to try and remain optimistic here, which is why I’m leaning more towards giving Gage and Graham the reps instead of the veterans. But it seems like an exercise in futility to predict what this coaching staff will do in 2019, so I guess anything is a possibility. Sanu’s trade certainly fetched a worthy pick for the Falcons, and it could open up opportunities to evaluate our young receiving corps. I just hope Koetter and the rest of the staff seize the chance, instead of squandering it on players who are ultimately unlikely to be here in 2020.

What are your thoughts on how the offense might change in Sanu’s absence? Who do you think will receive the biggest jump in targets over the remainder of the season?