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Falcons to watch: What kind of 2019 role can Russell Gage earn?

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The second-year receiver and special teamer can start making his case for an expanded role this year.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

By virtue of job security, potential role, and upside, there aren’t too many players on offense who are more interesting over this summer than Russell Gage. Your Matt Ryans, your Devonta Freemans, and your Calvin Ridleys are locked into huge roles in a way that Gage isn’t, but he’s a mortal lock to make the roster due to special team value and is set to have a major role there. That at least gives him the opportunity to earn looks on offense.

What makes him interesting is the combination of available roles now and in the future and that security. With Justin Hardy on a one year deal, Marcus Green headed for an uncertain early role, and Mohamed Sanu possibly reaching the final years of his productive time in Atlanta, Gage could carve out a role as the fourth receiver as soon as 2020.

Let’s look at why he’s worth watching this summer and this season, and why you should keep your hype tempered.

What’s working for Gage?

We saw flashes of his talent last year, and we’re seeing the speed again in the early going.

The speed is really Gage’s calling card, as he ran a strong 4.45 40 yard dash at his pro day and showed off a strong broad jump and three cone, one of the prerequisites for the Falcons from an athleticism standpoint. Gage showed solid route running for a lightly used sixth round rookie in 2018 and stands 6 feet, which paired with his vertical gives him the ability to get after the kinds of jump balls Matt Ryan is sometimes wont to throw downfield. Gage’s speed and athleticism got him chiefly gadget-type looks in 2018, but he has the skillset to be a credible deep threat and YAC threat, if probably never more than a part-time player in those roles.

Gage is also set to be a core special teamer for a long time. The team pretty clearly drafted him primarily for his potential as a gunner on special teams, a massive focus for Keith Armstrong a year ago. With Justin Bethel gone the team is going to have to identify a new partner for Gage, but he fared well in the gig a year ago and could carve out a decade-long run in Atlanta if all goes well because of his obvious value there. That means he’ll potentially have plenty of time to make his case as a receiver, and he should always be active on gamedays.

What’s working against Gage?

History is one thing. The Falcons have had countless late round picks and UDFAs who have come in, enjoyed a productive summer or even season, and then quietly exited. You can throw names like Marvin Hall, Devin Fuller, Brandyn Harvey, JD McKissic, and many more to this particular list. All of them have been speedy and nearly all of them had special teams value, but it’s never worked out.

Gage is also still a bit buried this year, which will limit his chances unless injuries strike. The top four is locked in with Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, Mohamed Sanu, and Justin Hardy, so Gage is the fifth guy and the fifth guy is probably not getting more than a couple of targets per game. That means no matter how impressive he is, he’s probably not going to push for a truly expanded role until 2020.

What to expect in 2019

Expect Gage to be one of the five or so most oft-utilized special teamers under Ben Kotwica, for starters. Then expect him to be a little more involved in the offense than he was a year ago with Marvin Hall elsewhere and a coordinator who likes to push the ball downfield. I’d say something along the lines of 15-20 receptions, 200-250 yards, and a touchdown, plus 8-10 special teams tackles, will be in Gage’s future for this year. I’ll be interested to see how he builds on that in 2020 and beyond.