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Falcons training camp battles: Russell Gage vs. Justin Hardy

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The veteran with great hands will be challenged by the young guy with big upside.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The top three receivers for the Falcons are secured. Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and Mohamed Sanu will see the bulk of passes from Matt Ryan in 2019. That doesn’t mean that the 2 or 3 additional receivers aren’t important. These are the guys who will contribute substantially on special teams and will be counted on to snag the occasional reception in larger passing sets.

Those three spots are up for grabs, though. That fourth slot is a key one, though. That player will be active on game days and will be expected to be on the field periodically as well as being a key contributor on special teams. In the past, that player has been Justin Hardy. This year, it looks like Russell Gage could make a serious push for that important spot. Who wins? Let’s take a look.

The Challengers

Justin Hardy, 27, entering his 5th year with Atlanta

Hardy’s strength is his sure hands. He’s not a particularly explosive receiver and his 5’10” frame doesn’t stand out, but his physicality is a strength. He’s been good for about 20 receptions per year, though his numbers dipped in 2018, undoubtedly due to the drafting of Calvin Ridley. On special teams, Hardy has served as a punt returner among other roles, but has underwhelmed at the position.

Many thought Hardy would sign elsewhere. When he returned on a one year deal, many fans were somewhat surprised. Hardy has had some impressive catches over the years and Ryan has shown he’s willing to throw to him in key situations.

At this point, we know who Hardy is. He’s a reliable receiver and blocker with limited upside who works well as a WR4 or WR5 option. He’s not going to blow the doors off, but his reliability makes him a worthy player to keep around.

Russell Gage, 23, entering his 2nd year with Atlanta

Gage is an athlete with considerable upside. He converted to receiver half way through his time at LSU and ran a sub 4.5 40 at his pro day. He’s slightly taller than Hardy at 6 feet, but has a smaller overall frame. Where Gage has really shined is on special teams. He was a gunner at LSU and was considered one of the best in the country coming out.

His value at receiver is an unknown. He did pull down a few receptions in 2018, but projecting that to 2019 is nearly impossible. We simply didn’t see enough of him to make a prediction one way or the other.

For Gage, he wins out if you place a bigger emphasis on upside and special teams value over predictable production. It’s a big wild-card, and it makes this a tough battle to call.

The winner is ...

At this point, I think it’s going to be Gage. The one year deal for Hardy is an indication that the team doesn’t necessarily see a long-term plan for Justin and Atlanta. That’s a big red flag for how they view his role in 2019. As for Gage, he’s already good on special teams and it’s clear the coaching staff thinks he can contribute more as a receiver. Whether that pans out or not remains to be seen, but I believe he’ll be given the bulk of opportunities in the upcoming season.